Douglas County postpones most projects
Only critical projects get funding as uncertainty lingers about the pandemic's impact on county finances.
Douglas County is taking a conservative approach to spending as uncertainty concerning the pandemic continues.
While some revenue streams are up, the county’s Administration Committee is recommending that only critical and safety-related projects get done for now.
With $2.1 million in project requests and less than $1.2 million in available funding, the administration approved placing $733,910 in reserve until more is known about the potential impacts the pandemic will have on the county’s finances.
“I don’t think it would be prudent to spend money when we might come up short,” County Administrator Ann Doucette said.
She recommended the committee only approve critical items and projects being done for safety in the near term and take action later to address other projects.
Funding was approved to replace the computer room cooling system, to replace two servers and to replace garage doors at the highway department shop in Dairyland because of safety concerns.
Doucette said the shop doors pose a safety threat and the computer equipment would be less expensive to replace than it costs the county now to maintain.
That’ll give the county more time to analyze the funding to make sure it’s there, Doucette said.
“It’s good to be conservative,” said Supervisor Alan Jaques, chair of the Administration Committee.
Overall, the county’s finances are in good shape, but there are areas of concern.
County Treasurer Carol Jones said the county collected more property tax revenue this year and had fewer tax delinquencies.
“We know that sales tax is up,” Jaques said.
Candy Holm-Anderson, finance and IT director, said sales taxes were higher than projected, but the county still needs to be cautious because of the lag time in reporting sales taxes.
“The clerk’s budget is over a little,” Holm-Anderson said. “It’s totally election expenses.”
She said the other departments are holding their own financially.
The county has received some “small pots of money” to help with things like contact tracing and a $722,940 Routes to Recovery grant, the finance director said.
“It’s nice to know that we’re not paying for this just through the county,” Holm-Anderson said. “We are getting some assistance from the state. We’re kind of getting in an active time for COVID in the county, so we don’t know what we don’t know.”
Revenue is up in the Register of Deeds and Zoning offices, but it is lagging in collections by the Clerk of Courts, Doucette said.
“The bear that’s sitting around watching us is the fact that Verso has shut down in Duluth and Wisconsin Rapids,” County Board Chair Mark Liebaert said. “Twenty percent of our wood in Douglas County … goes to those mills.”
He said the balsam market has disappeared, and without a market for the wood, it’s unlikely to be cut which would affect the county’s revenue streams from timber sales.
Douglas County manages more than 280,000 acres of county forest land, the largest county forest in Wisconsin. On average, the county has earned about $3.8 annually through timber sales between 2014 and 2018, according to Douglas County budgets. Forestry revenue pays for Douglas County parks, trails and other outdoor recreational opportunities and contributes more than $1.5 million to the county’s general fund to offset the property tax levy.
Liebaert said the county is fortunate to have $1 million in reserve for forestry but said the county may want to revisit that to increase it in case there is a collapse in the market.
However, he said there is good news too.
“We have had the greatest park income, usage that we have ever had, and we’re only about three-quarters of the way through the season,” Liebaert said. “So that’s good news. We don’t make a lot of money from that, but it does show that our parks are being used by residents and people from out of the area.”