Local leaders meet in Madison to consider creative ways to provide vital care and fill potholes

Each time children must be removed from their homes because of safety concerns, Eau Claire County Administrator Kathryn Schauf knows the county budget is about to take another hit.

The increasing instances of kids being relocated from their homes because of drug-related problems, domestic abuse, and other reasons make up just one of several areas where county budgets are mirroring many Wisconsin families whose incomes may be growing but rapidly being outpaced by rising expenses. Members of the Wisconsin Counties Association are discussing these issues and more this week at their annual meeting in Madison. 

The issue, Schauf and other county officials say, is despite calls by many local leaders during the past decade to boost state aid, the Republican-controlled Legislature, while raising state funding in some categories, has not provided money to keep pace with costs of mandatory programs and that is hindering counties’ abilities to serve their communities.  

In many cases, those officials said, counties are forced to borrow money to make up the difference and provide those services. That, in turn, often leaves counties struggling to pay for other programs. Increasingly, county officials said, some initiatives simply don’t happen because money that normally would go toward them is needed instead to pay for mandatory ones.    

Speaking at a local ‘State of the County’ breakfast sponsored by a local Chamber of Commerce, Schauf described the gap between funding the state provides for mandatory services counties must offer and the cost of those efforts as a big problem. “The cost of those services keeps rising faster than the money available, and it’s stretching county budgets across this state.”

In part because of the failure of state dollars to keep pace with the rising cost of mandated services, the Department of Human Services budget in Eau Claire County has run in the red in recent years. This year the department’s deficit is projected to be nearly $2 million.

Eau Claire is far from alone in struggling to pay for mandated state services. As money available for state-mandated programs fails to keep pace with expenses in Racine County, officials there have been forced to devise new ways of providing those services, County Executive Jonathan Delagrave said. In recent years the county has expanded mental health programming and provided resources related to an opioid addiction epidemic, costly endeavors state payments only partly cover.   

Delagrave said he would like to see more funding from the state for the services it requires, but he doesn’t see that happening in the next few years. In the meantime, his county will continue to work on funding social services programs while also paying for other services, such as roads, Delagrave said.

“Would you like to see more funding sources for things, whether it’s the state, grant or federal level? Of course,” he said. “But we also feel like we can get pretty creative and really have the best services possible, especially for those in need the last few years.”

Kenosha County Executive Jim Kreuser acknowledged state aid funding challenges for programs ranging from roads to social services. The county is widening three highways that connect to Interstate 94 from four to six lanes to alleviate traffic congestion and boost connectivity. County officials also are working with the city of Kenosha to increase home ownership in and provide more human services to impoverished areas. 

“You can take a look at where are the areas of higher crime, more poverty. How do we get services to them?” Kreuser said.   

Payments for mandated services are outpacing state funding for at-risk populations in Dunn County too, county supervisor Jim Zons said, with foster care and other out-of-home placements driving much of that deficit. 

The lack of state money compared to the cost of required services “is a huge issue for us,” Zons said, noting the gap can lead to less funding for other county programs.  

County officials said state funding for roads is also not keeping pace with needed fixes, prompting 11 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties to enact vehicle registration fees, commonly referred to as a wheel tax, to help make up the difference. Wheel taxes range from $10 to $30 per vehicle. 

In Chippewa County, board supervisors decided to let a $10 per-vehicle wheel tax that generated $544,825 annually for winter road maintenance expire at the end of last year, leaving county officials to decide how to make up for that loss. A recent effort to boost the county sales tax from 5.5 percent to 6 percent, with added revenue to go for road work, failed to garner County Board approval.

“We haven’t found any solutions yet for how we will make up for that lost revenue,” Chippewa County Board Supervisor Kari Ives said.  

Counties and other local governments in Wisconsin can raise tax revenue only by a percentage of new development from one year to the next, typically from 1 to 3 percent in most communities. With programming costs climbing higher than that in many cases, counties are forced to borrow money to pay for those services or go without some of them. 

While borrowed dollars are exempt from revenue limits, counties can only borrow so much money before loan repayments threaten to break the budget. As county governments and other local governments in Wisconsin face growing fiscal concerns, they likely will have to look at new ways of budgeting, said Mark O’Connell, Wisconsin Counties Association executive director.

O’Connell told more than 200 WCA attendees Tuesday that local governments are likely to partner with private entities in future years as a means of providing services amid ongoing budget difficulties. Those financial woes are likely to prompt regional consolidations for governments to provide services more efficiently, he said.   

“The public is now telling us ‘We have this challenge. I don’t care who among you addresses this challenge. Just address it,’ ” O’Connell said.