Written by Brad Karger
Did you ever have a teacher say:
“If one student in this room asks me a question, probably several others have the very same question”?
Well, with this new series — “I’m Glad You Asked . . .” — we’re bringing the questions to YOU, no hand-raising required.
It’s part of our commitment to be open, honest, and communicative about the topics that Marathon County leadership and staff get comments and questions on the most.
Like that grade-school teacher, we’re thinking that there are probably MANY of you who could benefit from learning the answers to 5 quick questions about Marathon County Government each month.
This month’s “I’m Glad You Asked . . .” article features:
The Top-5 Questions People Ask the Marathon County ADMINISTRATOR (Brad Karger)
#1. Where does the MONEY to pay for County services come from?
The 2019 Marathon County budget is $162,488,295. The dollar amounts shift from year to year, but generally speaking, the County receives revenue from these main sources:
- Property taxes ($49,489,841 in 2019)
- Sales tax ($13,000,000 in 2019)
- State aids ($38,997,191 in 2019)
- Federal aid ($4,874,649 in 2019)
- Vehicle Registration Fee, aka “Wheel Tax” ($3,000,000 in 2019)
Much of the remainder comes from fees paid to the beneficiaries of specific County services.
So, that answers where the money comes from. A related question I often get from residents is:
How much of my property tax bill goes to fund the County?
The answer depends on which municipality and school district you live in and what its tax rates are. Generally speaking, though, the County consumes less than 20% of your overall property tax bill.
#2. Why are so many people in our local JAIL?
According to data reported in our 2019 Annual Budget report, on average, the Marathon County Jail houses 402 people each month. That compares to 334 people per month in jail in 2005, and 297 for the average jail census in 2011.
Our downtown jail was built in 1987 to house 150 inmates. In 1998, it was expanded to house 250. In both instances, the jail was almost immediately full upon opening.
To deal with today’s increased demand for jail housing, Marathon County is having to transfer “overflow” inmates to jails in neighboring counties, including Lincoln, Shawano, Chippewa, Taylor, Langlade, Outagamie, and Marquette — all of which adds transportation costs for the County and complicates visitations for affected families.
So, what’s behind this increase in our local jail population?
Violent crime in Marathon County hasn’t significantly increased since 2005, but what has happened is a dramatic increase in the use of illegal drugs, like heroin and methamphetamine.
Few people are incarcerated for drug use alone . . .
You see, once a drug addiction takes hold, the addicted person needs financial resources to feed his or her addiction, often selling drugs or turning to theft to get money to support the addiction. Additionally, under the influence of drugs, a person’s behavior can become erratic, thus he or she might be arrested for some type of battery or assault. (You can learn more about the growing impact of opioid addiction on Marathon County in my 2019 Budget Message.)
I used to think that drug abuse could be lessened with a strong educational program targeted to young adults — like the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program offered in our local schools. Those types of prevention programs have helped, but they haven’t been enough.
I’m not an expert in this area, but I think that a community needs to take a multifaceted approach to combating drug abuse, including:
- Drug prevention education — which helps young people understand that addiction is a life sentence and that while recovery is possible, it’s an everyday struggle
- Parental education and support — which can help prevent or reduce instances of adverse childhood experiences and trauma that may lead a person to turn to drugs in the first place
- Drug law enforcement — which limits the supply of available drugs in the community
- Drug treatment — which provides a way out of an unhealthy lifestyle for people with addictions
Even with all of these anti-drug government initiatives in place, success for our community will still be determined to a large extent by the strength of our families and the strength of our local economy in producing family-supporting jobs and reducing poverty.
In the meantime . . .
Can’t we just build our way out of this problem and expand our jail facilities?
In a word: No.
(And the Wausau Center mall cannot be easily repurposed into a jail, either.)
The longer answer is, in my 2019 Budget Message, I wrote that I anticipate that in 5 years, we’ll have to expand the capacity of our jail. But that will merely alleviate the need and costs for Marathon County to shuttle inmates around the region.
The solution to our “jail overcrowding” problem is NOT going to be mass incarceration. A real solution will require much more than simply better warehousing of people.
Initiatives like Marathon County’s new Drug Court show great promise in reducing recidivism. Projects like that are how our local fight against drugs can be won — One person and one new idea at a time, with no easy answers.
#3. Why is the COUNTY BOARD so large?
The Marathon County Board of Supervisors has 38 members and is the largest County Board in the State of Wisconsin:
- They are the governing body of the County and function as the policy-making and legislative branch of County Government.
- County supervisors are elected in the spring for a two-year term via non-partisan election.
- Each supervisor represents an equal amount of County residents (give or take a few).
- The Board represents a wide range of ages and is becoming increasingly diverse; it currently includes 10 women and 2 members of Hmong decent and represents a diversity of careers, educational attainment, and incomes.
Why Marathon County chooses to have a bigger County Board than other Wisconsin counties depends on whom you talk to . . .
In my 30 years working in Marathon County Government, the County Board has debated the topic at least 4 to 5 times, and after all the impassioned speeches were over, the outcome was always the same —
About 4 to 5 members supported reducing the size of the board, and about 30 members supported the status quo.
The deciding factor in each of those debates was that the majority of board members believed that the current structure works well and so they did not see a compelling reason to change.
Board size will likely come up again around 2020, when redistricting will occur. My expectation is that the county board will have a very similar discussion and reach the same conclusion as in years past.
However, Wisconsin law does provide for a citizen’s initiative to reduce the size of the County Board. If the question of County Board size gets put directly before the voters through binding referendum, I don’t know what to tell you might happen then, because that hasn’t happened during my tenure. The experience in Wood and St. Croix Counties suggests that voters will favor a board size reduction by a large margin.
If you’re unsure who your Board Supervisor is, visit https://myvote.wi.gov/en-us/MyVoterInfo and type in your address. The program will identify the board member who represents your district in Marathon County.
#4. What does Marathon County Government DO?
Marathon County is a local unit of government — similar to the government entity running the city, village, or town you live in. However, County Government is unique in that it serves as the administrative arm of the state.
For a brief overview of what counties do, check out this helpful video (it’s less than 3 minutes long):
The list of public services provided by Marathon County is long. Here’s just a sampling to hint at the scope and breadth of services being handled by our dedicated Marathon County Government staff:
- Promoting public health, including communicable disease and public health hazard investigations, via the Marathon County Health Department
- Protecting the safety of children, including abuse and neglect investigations via the Marathon County Department of Social Services
- Operating public libraries, including the Marathon County Public Library Wausau Headquarters, plus its 8 branch libraries
- Performing snowplowing and road maintenance on County highways (like County Road R) and on State highways (like State Highway 29) via the Marathon County Highway Department
- Providing law enforcement services, operating the 911 Emergency Dispatch Center, and operating the jail via the Marathon County Sheriff’s Office
- Partnering with Portage County to operate the Central Wisconsin Airport
- Maintaining vital records, including birth and death certificates, land records, and marriage licenses via the Register of Deeds Department
- Overseeing and conducting elections through the County Clerk’s Office
- Operating County Parks (like Marathon Park and the Eastbay Sports Complex) and County Forests (like 9-Mile County Forest Recreation Area) via the combined Wausau and Marathon County Parks Department
- Operating and supporting the Circuit Courts through the Clerk of Courts Office
- Conducting eligibility determination for programs like Food Share via Marathon County Social Services and for Family Care through Social Services and the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Central Wisconsin
- Conducting investigations and determining the causes of death for our deceased via an appointed Medical Examiner
- Helping farmers with their conservation efforts and working to keep our local rivers and lakes clean via the Marathon County Conservation, Planning, & Zoning Department
Some of these services are mandated by the State of Wisconsin, and others are not. In many cases, the level of services Marathon County Government provides exceeds the minimum level required by the State of Wisconsin.
If you’d like to learn more about the variety of services your local County Government provides, I invite you to visit the Departments page of our Marathon County website.
#5. Is the County Administrator an ELECTED position?
In Wisconsin, each county must have a County Executive, Administrator, or Administrative Coordinator. Of the 72 counties:
- 11 have an elected County Executive with the authority to veto action of the County Board. For example, Portage County has this structure.
- 23 hire a County Administrator who is a trained career professional appointed by the County Board to serve as CEO of the County. We have this structure in Marathon County.
- The remaining 38 counties in Wisconsin have an appointed Administrative Coordinator to implement the policies of the County Board. The duties of the position are set by the County Board and most often do not include appointment or removal of department heads. Lincoln, Wood, Langlade, and Taylor Counties have this structure.
I personally think that the County Administrator structure works well in Marathon County and should be retained. I anticipate that this topic will be evaluated again in 2019 in relation to our 2018–2022 Strategic Plan and that periodic re-evaluation is healthy.
Times change, and we can’t be afraid to look at our structures to make sure they offer us the best opportunity to move Marathon County forward.
After all, this is your County Government, not mine. I simply manage implementation of the County Board’s policies, and those represent YOUR interests and preferences.
I invite you to become more involved at the County level. Attend a County Board meeting, watch meetings via live broadcast on the Government & Education cable access channel (981), or view meetings online after they get posted to our website or YouTube.
* * *
So . . .
- Are the questions above ones that you’ve wondered about?
- Are my answers helpful in expanding your understanding of County Government?
- Do the responses seem honest and forthcoming?
Feel free to share your feedback on this new FAQ series with me (Brad.Karger@co.marathon.wi.us) so we can shape it to better meet your expectations. As public servants of Marathon County, our Editorial Board and I work for YOU!
And, I’m sure you’d agree . . .
Public engagement works best when we ALL make an effort to reach out to one another.
Marathon County Administrator
In his Administrator role, Brad Karger leads an organization with 700+ employees and an annual budget of more than $162 million. Brad has been in leadership positions with Marathon County for the past 30 years. He is known statewide for generating innovative ideas and solutions to problems, openness and transparency, and a commitment to community service that extends well beyond the normal workday. Email Brad Karger.
You might also like…
- Marathon County Thanks Its Local Foster Families for Helping Children in Need
- Financial Hardship in Marathon County :: What the ALICE Report Reveals About Local Jobs & Wages
- The Marathon County Literacy Council :: Helping Others Obtain the Power of Reading
Please email our Editorial Board with your comments, suggestions, and article ideas.
And if you spot a typo or an inaccuracy, please contact us so we can fix it. Thanks!