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Drug-related costs prompt Ashland County to seek referendum to raise tax levy

Danielle Kaeding

Wisconsin Public Radio

One northern Wisconsin county plans to ask voters this August whether they would support raising property taxes to pay for services. Ashland County is putting a referendum before residents because of rising costs due mostly to methamphetamine use.

The number of felonies related to drug abuse in Ashland County has more than doubled in recent years from 122 in 2011 to 303 last year. Ashland County Administrator Jeff Beirl said they'd like to increase the tax levy by about $1 million to pay for law enforcement and health and human services.

"It's just not sustainable to keep covering these continued shortfalls out of the general fund because at some point in life the general fund won't have any more money in it," said Beirl.

The cost to the county for placing children in out-of-home care rose from $405,420 in 2016 to $720,909 last year. In addition, the county has also seen public safety spending increase by about $750,000 in the last three years. Beirl said they've tried to fill the gap through sales tax and timber sale revenues, but those sources of income have either hit a plateau or been maxed out.

"We used to budget $300,000 a year for stumpage revenue. We're at $760,000 a year in stumpage revenue that we're budgeting," said Beirl. "Our county forester had said he's comfortable predicting $750,000 on an average for maximum timber sales in a year."

It's uncommon for counties to seek a referendum to exceed state restrictions on levy limits, said Kyle Christianson, director of government affairs with the Wisconsin Counties Association.

"To this point, we haven't seen a lot of counties go down this road, but those discussions are ongoing," said Christianson.

He said a couple of counties are considering a referendum as they're looking for ways to fund treatment.

"I'd think you'd be hard-pressed to find a county that's not dealing with this epidemic in some way," said Christianson. "Everyone's caseloads across the state — whether it's in their human services department or their children in need of protective services departments — are seeing rising caseloads as a result of this epidemic."

A $5 million annual increase in state aid allocations to counties was included in the current two-year budget. The Wisconsin Department of Children and Families has said those funds are targeted to help counties address growing caseloads and out-of-home care placements.

Ashland County has examined the possibility of raising fees or cutting services if voters don’t approve a tax increase.

"When you look at the county budget, the two biggest areas are public safety and health and human services," said Beirl. "Where do you cut those services when the cry and demand is for more services, not less?"

Ashland County will put the question before voters during on the Aug. 14 primary ballot.

Wisconsin Public Radio, © Copyright 2018, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System and Wisconsin Educational Communications Board. Find more WPR news on KUWS-FM 91.3 or wpr.org.

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