Balancing the County Budget

The county may have some trouble balancing its 2013 budget depending on how rates rise for the state’s public pension fund, known as the Wisconsin Retirement System (WRS).

“Under Gov. Walker’s budget repair bill, union represented employees pay more into health insurance and retirement, but that’s only for employees that weren’t under contract,” says Dave Lienau, county board supervisor and chair of the county’s finance committee. “Ours are under contract until Dec. 1, 2013. Unless they voluntarily do it the county is responsible right now to cover the increases.”

The current draft of the county budget has a built-in deficit of $308,945, which could be more than covered by the $550,000 the county expected to but didn’t spend during this fiscal year. But the 2013 increase to WRS contributions will further increase the deficit by somewhere between $100,000 and $300,000.

“Usually the state provides us with those rates in June,” says Grant Thomas, corporation counsel and interim administrator for the county. “They promise to give us the real numbers by the end of September, so we’re kind of anxious. Really what we have is a range of possibilities.”

If the WRS increase comes in big, the county will most likely implement staff cuts unless union-represented employees come forward to make concessions.

The county has five employee groups that are represented by unions. Three of those – the courthouse, social services, and community programs units – may eventually fall under the purview of Act 10, the budget repair bill. Union-represented workers with the EMS and sheriff’s departments will not be affected by Act 10.

On Sept. 15, a Dane County Circuit Court Judge ruled that the provisions within Act 10 which curtailed union workers’ rights to negotiate for anything but wage increases was unconstitutional, so it’s possible that union-represented county employees will not be affected by Act 10 at all.

State Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen has filed a motion asking that the ruling on the case be stayed, and it’s likely the case will be reviewed by the State Supreme Court.

The county has reached out to union representatives to see if they’d be interesting in taking reduced raises or contributing more of their salaries to their healthcare or retirement funds, but no one has been interested so far.

However, that doesn’t mean concessions won’t ultimately be made.

“It’s hard until you actually know what you’re going to be faced with,” says Lienau. “If the deficit is only $500,000 it’s a moot point.”

Last year, union-represented employees from the county’s courthouse unit made concessions that allowed their department to come in under budget without any layoffs.

Thomas says staff cuts are not necessarily the best cost-savings tool because the county still has to pay benefits to laid-off employees and reduce the number of services it provides, but there aren’t many other options.

“There is no more low-hanging fruit,” he says. “The last couple budget years have been tough, and we’re not finding little pots of money some place we can apply or areas we can realize significant cost savings without reductions in services that at least the policymakers have decided are needed.”

Lienau is hopeful that the WRS rate increase will come in on the low side so the county doesn’t have to make any tough choices.

“We don’t look forward to doing anything on the personnel side unless we have to,” he says. “We absolutely would try to find funds first before doing that.”