County file Drew

Columbia County Board Finance Committee Chairman Dan Drew offers a contribution to help pay for noon meals, at the beginning of the committee's 2019 budget deliberations earlier this month. 

Columbia County will have a balanced budget next year, but at some cost.

Those costs include $1.56 million from the general fund reserves to cover the gap between revenues and expenditures.

The proposed dip into reserves — slightly more than the $1.5 million needed to balance this year’s budget — is as small as it is because the County Board’s Finance Committee rejected a number of departmental budget requests, and eliminated funding for the Columbia County Economic Development Corp.

The proposed $80 million budget will include across-the-board pay increases of 1 percent for about 500 county employees whose wages are set by the county’s classification and compensation system. That excludes sheriff’s deputies, who still are negotiating their union contract, and elected officials.

Supervisor Matt Rohrbeck of Portage said he voted against the across-the-board increases because he doesn’t think the county can afford the $225,000 cost.

Supervisor Dan Drew of the town of Pacific, chairman of the finance committee, said there would be costs, in morale and in training new employees to replace those who would depart, if the across-the-board increases are not granted.

Several department heads on Thursday heard a variation of what Drew said to Health and Human Services Director Dawn Woodard, as the committee shaved her budget requests by about $82,500: “I know how painful these cuts are for you. But they help the county as a whole, and we appreciate it.”

Severe cuts

The Health and Human Services reductions included medical supplies for the public health department, reductions in the amount requested for adult protective services and the amount of property tax revenue spent on the grant-funded Medication Assisted Recovery Program for people with drug addiction. The state grant for the program is scheduled to run out at the end of July, and may or may not be renewed.

Woodard also had offered to reduce her request for two staff vehicles, to replace the cars employees use to drive to out-of-county destinations. Both the vehicles have more than 124,000 miles on their odometers, she said.

The panel allowed the replacement of one of the vehicles, at $17,500.

When department heads presented their budget requests, there was a gap of about $2.4 million between their proposed expenditures and available revenues.

The gap was narrowed somewhat when the Finance Committee voted unanimously to withdraw all funding — totaling $141,070 — from the Columbia County Economic Development Corp., including $20,000 requested for tourism promotion.

Department changes

Columbia County is realizing $60,895 in savings by combining the Land and Water Conservation and Planning and Zoning departments, both headed by Kurt Calkins.

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Calkins asked Thursday if the Finance Committee would return about $10,000 of that savings so the departments could hire a contractor to improve the way land information, including zoning, is collected and accessed.

Supervisor Barry Pufahl of Pardeeville suggested instead that the money be transferred from proposed departmental expenses, when and if the project occurs. The committee rejected Calkins’ request.

In the case of two departments — the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office — the Finance Committee said no to departmental requests largely because both departments are expected to be under new leadership starting in January.

Det. Lt. Roger Brandner, who is running unopposed for sheriff, said he had no part in formulating the department’s 2019 budget requests, which were prepared and submitted by Sheriff Dennis Richards.

The requests included two new patrol deputies and two new lieutenants, one for the jail and one for late-shift patrols. Had all the requests been granted, the cost would have been $339,753, not including squad cars and other equipment.

As the person who has been in charge of scheduling at the sheriff’s office for about 18 years, Brandner said the greatest need is more patrol personnel.

“We absolutely need to add staff to go out and do all we do,” he said. “Or else our services for people just can’t continue.”

Committee members had been told that no one was coming from the sheriff’s office to address the budget requests, and had voted unanimously to reject all the personnel requests.

After Brandner spoke, Pufahl moved to reconsider that decision, intending to advocate for adding one patrol deputy, at a cost of $79,796. The motion to reconsider died for lack of a second, and the deputy position was not restored to the budget.

Corporation Counsel Joseph Ruf said Brandner could request that new positions be added to the 2019 budget next year after Brandner assumes leadership of the sheriff’s office in January.

Assistant District Attorney Jordan Lippert advocated for expanded hours for a legal assistant. He said the understaffed department depends heavily on its assistants.

However, committee members said whoever is appointed to succeed District Attorney Jane Kohlwey should decide what personnel the office needs, and may make recommendations after assuming office.

The committee also rejected a request from Highway Commissioner Chris Hardy for refurbishment of a rail spur, so that the highway department can receive salt by train, which is about $9 cheaper per ton than salt delivered by a truck.

Drew said he appreciates Hardy’s efforts to create a five-year plan for equipment replacement, and he said he wished other departments would make similar long-term plans.

The proposed budget will be presented Oct. 17 to the County Board. A public hearing on the budget will be held during the County Board’s Nov. 13 meeting, at which supervisors may propose amendments before voting on the budget’s adoption.

Follow Lyn Jerde on Twitter @LynJerde or contact her at 608-745-3587.

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