County Conservation Hiring a Challenge Under Levy Limits

The impact of state legislative limits on the tax levying abilities of government entities is being felt in Door County government, as evidenced by discussion during the June 13 meeting of the county Land Conservation Committee (LCC).

This committee has oversight of the county’s Soil and Water Conservation Department.

Department head Erin Hanson appeared before the committee to request filling a county conservationist position that has been open for two years, reasoning that since it seems likely that changes to NR 151 for the karst region of eastern Wisconsin will go into effect July 1, that new person will be needed to monitor nutrient management plans and help farmers come into compliance with the new rules. She also pointed out to the committee that the department of 11 people is now down to seven people with more responsibilities than when they had four more bodies.

“I see a need for the position to be filled,” Hanson said, adding that this person would be working in the field with the farmers.

“That’s where the true conservation happens,” she added.

In the information packet each member of the committee receives beforehand, Door County Administrator Ken Pabich had recommended not filling the position. He was at the meeting to explain that position, and the essence of his message was, “We’re growing faster than we can afford.”

Under current tax levy limits, municipal property tax collections are directly tied to the annual rate of new construction. Along with that legislatively imposed belt-tightening measure, state aids, the other significant source of municipal revenue, have declined or stayed flat in recent years.

That is what was on longtime county supervisor Dan Austad’s mind when he said, “We’ve been pulling rabbits out of the hat the last two or three years, knowing this tax levy is out there. There’s no more rabbits in the hat.”

Austad added that he is surprised the county hasn’t instituted a hiring freeze.

“We’ve got to watch what we’re doing,” he cautioned.

Pabich reiterated that the state-imposed levy limit is “an artificial limit that we have to meet.”

“I totally agree that the workload is there,” he said. “It’s just a matter of how we pay for it.”

While there is money in the budget for the position this year and the next, Pabich said that dries up in 2020. He suggested the solution would be to hire a limited term employee, and then tie the position to whatever grant funding can help pay for it in the future.

The result, being felt in communities throughout the state, was examined in an April report called A Growing Divide:  Do levy limits lock in disparities in high- and low-growth municipalities? by the Wisconsin Policy Forum, which determined that “Given the fiscal constraints placed on municipalities, especially those with low development rates, an increase in public safety spending may come at the expense of other, non-essential services.”

It is not known if members of the LCC saw that report, but they have lived through it in various committee meetings, so several of them echoed that statement about the county having plenty of money for public safety but getting cheap with other departments.

The first to mention this divide was county supervisor Richard Virlee, who pointed out that he had 30 years in law enforcement, yet still finds it hard to swallow that public safety services – police, fire, EMS – do not have to abide by the levy limits that are squeezing other departments and services.

“We can hire extra people on EMS and find hundreds of thousands of dollars but we’re struggling with tiny amounts of money,” he said. “Where do we find money for departments not within the levy limits? It’s really hard to get your arms around that. All that money being spent this year, next year and forever.”

LCC Chair Ken Fisher agreed with Virlee, and pointed out that the county share of funding the $80,000 position is only 30 percent, or about $24,000 annually.

“Certainly we can find some way to fund the 30 percent,” he said. “We’ve spent millions on EMS. We just let them grow and grow and grow and they grow obscenely, until it seems there’s an EMT on every street corner. I just take it as a little bit of an insult, one group gets everything they want. We’ve got the platinum service on EMS. Here we go overboard on it, and now we’re going to be cheap on this.”

He also reminded his fellow committee members that the last time they talked about cutting Soil and Water staff, the room was packed with people urging them not to do it.

“People up here want this environment protected,” Fisher said. “Now, I’m not a tree hugger. If we have to take a tree out, take it out. We need clean water. We need to preserve the environment and this is important. My thought on it is we get this position. We should have that.”

Newly elected county supervisor Vinni Chomeau was for hiring a new conservationist ASAP.

“I think that this is very much needed and it would be foolish not to do it,” she said.

Pabich explained that as the county’s chief executive, he has to look at the big picture for the entire machine that makes county government work.

“I love your passion, but we have to get it right,” he said.

The committee decided it needed to look more closely at all the figures, and will do so in time to make a recommendation at its July 12 meeting. It will then go to the Administration Committee before going to the full county board.

The savvy Austad left his colleagues with this thought:  “Bottom line, the levy limit has to be withdrawn. It will have to get worse to get legislators to drop the levy limit.”

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