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County panel sets tax, spending plan -- for now

The cost of county services is on the rise in 2008. Douglas County's administration committee is recommending a 3 percent increase in spending for the next year. The recommendation comes with a 3.7 percent tax levy increase. The county's estimate...

The cost of county services is on the rise in 2008.

Douglas County's administration committee is recommending a 3 percent increase in spending for the next year. The recommendation comes with a 3.7 percent tax levy increase.

The county's estimated $57.7 million budget would be supported by a tax levy of $13.6 million levy. It's expected to generate an additional $65,568 over the county administrator's recommendation. The money was added to cover potential labor cost increases during contract negotiations.

County Administrator Steve Koszarek recommended the panel settle for a 21?2 percent spending hike.

"We don't know where Madison is at; this makes this very, very difficult," he said, recommending the county's spending level be set slightly higher than allowed under the state's property tax freeze. "My understanding of the statutes is that unless the Legislature puts in a freeze, there isn't one. So we have some latitude," Koszarek said.

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He said a 3 percent wage increase could leave the county in the hole in 2009 and trying to make it up. However, he said the $65,568 difference wasn't going to be "killer" for the county.

"I'm a little afraid, for the poor taxpayer's standpoint, the school is going to jump theirs like crazy and anything we add onto that is going to be the straw that broke the camel's back," Koszarek said. "I want to be sensitive to the taxpayer, and I think we can live with 21?2 percent."

Superior school district officials have discussed a 17 percent tax levy increase if the Legislature doesn't approve an increase in state funding for schools. The deadline to calculate a proposed $80 million increase in school funding passed last week, and a state budget is still pending.

Committee members, however, were reluctant to set a spending limit that could fall short of revenue needed to cover employees' wages in 2008.

Supervisor Larry Quam said he remembers a few years ago when the county was forced to increase the property tax levy significantly after years of trying to hold the line on county spending. In 2002, declining revenue and increased costs resulted in a 52 percent jump in the county tax levy.

"Are we cutting ourselves down to $4.14 or $4.12 so next year we have to go to $5 (per $1,000 of property value)?" Quam asked.

The committee's Wednesday recommendation will cost taxpayers about $4.16 cents per $1,000 of property value, about 12-cents less than this year. Rising property values estimated at 6.9 percent this year allows the county to increase its property tax levy at a lower tax rate.

Supervisor Dan Corbin agreed and made the motion to recommend a 3 percent increase in spending next year.

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Supervisor Susan Hendrickson questioned the wisdom of approving the highest recommendation and holding the line on wage increases for union employees by approving a lower spending limit. But committee members saw that as an unlikely scenario.

In spite of the spending increase recommended for 2008, the county is cutting programs to contain spending. Next year, programs like DARE and the county's home health care program will cease to exist.

Committee members accepted the recommendation to end home health care at the end of the year after learning private-sector agencies could fill the gap.

Sheriff Tom Dalbec was left with the choice of removing bailiffs who provide courthouse security or the drug resistance education program.

"It's not that it isn't a good program," Dalbec said, but at a cost of $8,000-$10,000 annually, the county can no longer afford DARE.

The full county board considers the budget Nov. 6, but it remains subject to change depending on what the state Legislature does or doesn't accomplish, Koszarek said.

"I wish Madison knew what they were doing, so we could make this more black and white, he said.

Shelley Nelson can be reached at (715) 395-5022 or snelson@superiortelegram.com .

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