The Bennett Town Board combed through its proposed budget line-by-line Monday, Oct. 28.
With revenues expected to be lower in 2020 than this year, replacing two computers with operating systems that will be obsolete in January wasn’t even a consideration; those would be upgraded instead.
Despite efforts to contain the costs of town services and with an infusion of anticipated revenue from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Bennett Town Board would still have to exceed its levy cap by $14,974 to match revenues and expenses next year.
The Board adopted a resolution Monday night to do just that — ask taxpayers permission to increase the town levy by 6%. A special town meeting is set for 7:30 p.m. Nov. 18 at the town hall.
“We’ve had a no-growth budgets for many years now and eventually, it’s taking its toll,” Bennett Supervisor Wes Koehler said. “It’s no earth-shattering thing. It’s just the cost of government is eating us up … we’re doing the best we can.”
Since 2012, growth in property tax levies in Wisconsin has been capped at the previous year’s levy plus an adjustment for the value of net new construction. While communities can exceed that levy limit, local government officials must get taxpayers permission before exceeding the limit. In communities with more than 3,000 residents, that’s done with a referendum held during the fall general election. In communities like Bennett, with fewer than 3,000 residents, communities have to hold a special meeting to get the town's approval.
Exceeding the caps without authorization from taxpayers can result in a loss in state-shared revenue equal to the amount of the excess.
Among the challenges the town faces next year is plans for five elections, with higher-than-normal election expenses and wages. Bennett Town Clerk Tamara Johnson said she hopes the $3,400 included in the budget is enough to cover the cost of the those elections, which includes a spring primary in February; the spring election and presidential preference in April; a special election in May to replace former Congressman Sean Duffy in the U.S. House of Representatives; the fall primary in August; and the presidential election in November.
“We’ve had some flood damage in the recent past, and we’re still waiting for FEMA to pay us back,” Koehler said.
The board added $50,000 from that anticipated revenue to the 2020 budget to reduce an expected $94,942 shortfall.
“I did talk to (FEMA) and they’re expecting that coming in by the end of the year,” Johnson said.
The proposed increase was further reduced when the Board eliminated $30,000 in funding for elevator improvements.
“You’d certainly like to spend more but you’ve got to pay for it somehow,” Bennett Chairman Barry Carlson said. “All we’ve got is gravel and dirt roads. Yeah, we’d love to blacktop and something like that, but there’s other things we’ve got to do.”
Koehler said while the levy caps do cause local officials to be diligent, it’s something local officials were already doing.
“Keeping machinery running, keeping gravel on the roads — it just seems to be getting harder over the years,” Koehler said. “We’ve done the best we can do to be fiscally responsible. It’s getting harder and harder to do this without raising the levy.”
Bennett isn’t the only town considering exceeding levy limits in Douglas County.
The town of Brule is considering maintaining a 1% levy increase next year in November after Brule residents first approved a similar increase about five years ago so the town could purchase a grader and backhoe, according to Brule Town Clerk Diane Nelson.
She said while the town anticipates paying those off this year, Brule is planning for a new garage large enough to hold the town's equipment and to address problems with mold, she said.
While the increase is project specific, Nelson said staying within the constraints imposed by the state has had an impact on the town, mostly in its roads, which makes up about 75% of the town’s budget.
Amnicon could be in the same boat next year after the town board approved its 2020 budget Monday, Oct. 28. Amnicon Supervisor Mark Liebaert said the town had to cut $10,000 from its gravel budget to keep spending in line with state constraints. After all, there are not many places to cut when the town has one employee and roads, he said.
“We’re all in the same bucket,” Carlson said. “We’ve just got to figure it out.”