Creating a $170 Million County Budget for 2020 Is All About Assessing Trade-Offs & Making Tough Choices

Written by Brad Karger

Q: When was the last time that Marathon County had enough money to do everything that everyone on the County Board thought it ought to do?

A: Never!

If there were no resource scarcity, anyone who is good at math could create the County Budget. But that’s not how our budget process in Marathon County works…

As the person in charge of putting together the first draft of a $170 million budget in an era of State-imposed levy caps:

I can’t satisfy every interest, so the art of crafting Marathon County’s budget lies in the process of skillfully assessing trade-offs while maintaining fidelity to broad, organizational goals.

When I make budget decisions, I start from the perspective of the Marathon County residents, and I try to make choices that most benefit the average citizen. But, because I’ve been a County employee now for over 30 years, I have to be careful not to bring too much of a staff perspective to the table. Our residents are the people who invest in County Government, so my job is to maximize their return on their public investment.

2019 Budget Message-cover

When I first came out of college, I used to think creating a budget was a simple exercise in balancing revenues and expenditures, one year at a time. (Good thing I started my career in Human Resources and not Public Finance!)

Since then, I’ve learned that a budget is in part a technical document, but better said:

A budget is a financial plan to support organizational goals, which were developed for the purpose of getting residents the results they want and value most.

Having a long-term perspective is critical.

The most common way to balance a budget is to “kick a few cans down the road” and focus on responding to political pressure. I don’t like upset, I prefer approval. But you can only take that so far or you’re not doing your job well. The best budgets deal with the immediate issues and concerns but also anticipate and set resources aside for emerging issues, which may leave some influential people upset because they’re not getting all of what they think they need. But that’s the nature of the business, and in the end, it all seems to work out pretty well.

Q: How do I know what residents want?

A: As your County Administrator, I’m constantly out in the community listening for what people value most and how they assess whether they got what they wanted, when they needed it most. When I ask an audience what keeps them up at night, I’m probing for the issues that matter most to people.

I long ago learned that if I asked people what their top County Budget priorities are, I’m not going to get an informed response. Most people don’t think about County Government much at all, and they don’t know quite how to respond to my inquiry other than by retorting:

“Lower my property taxes!”

I understand that people have busy lives and that they have elected officials in charge of studying the details and making decisions on their behalf that are consistent with the citizenry’s expressed needs, values, and priorities. But, I still have an obligation to ask…

That’s why, every fall, we hold a public hearing on the County Budget. I invite you to attend this year’s Budget Hearing, scheduled for 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday, November 12, 2019, at the Marathon County Courthouse in the Assembly Room (B-105). If you wonder what it will be like, you can view last year’s 2019 Budget Hearing on YouTube here or below.

To be honest, typically our Budget Hearing meetings are poorly attended, and the people who do attend are more likely stakeholders who hope to sway policymakers to support a funding initiative for an organization they represent.

But you could change that by inviting your friends and neighbors to come to the informational meeting or livestream the Budget Hearing on Government & Education Cable Channel 981 of Wausau Area Access Media.

County Board Meeting - YouTube - screenshot

In addition to holding a Budget Hearing, I try to listen carefully to the Marathon County Board of Supervisors and develop a Budget draft that reflects their priorities, hopes for the future of our County, and ideas for reaching the broad goals that are articulated in the County’s 2018-2022 Strategic Plan.

Marathon County has the largest County Board in the nation, with 38 members, so that process can be complex and certainly time consuming. But after you’ve been around awhile, certain themes emerge. For example, investments in public safety are almost always a top priority. Next in line are often infrastructure investments in roads and bridges. Human Services, Parks, Arts, Education, and Economic Development are important to policy makers, but my experience in Marathon County has been that safety and roads consistently top the list.

“Don’t tell me where your priorities are.
Show me where you spend your money, and I’ll tell you what they are.”

— Dave Ramsey


A well-crafted budget tells a story…

I could write my Budget Message to be very technical, and the CPAs on the County Board and in the community might like that. But when I write my Budget Message, I try to make sure good portions of it are conversational in tone and avoid government jargon. I try to write what I would say if I were speaking with a person at a kitchen table about the County Budget and use words and examples that will help promote understanding to the average resident of Marathon County.

See what you think:

  • Does this year’s Budget Message help you understand the priorities, constraints, and clear connections to the County’s Strategic Plan?


  • Does it reflect long-term perspective?
  • Are the trade-offs clear and supported by solid thinking?

Budget Message button

As I said earlier, my role in Marathon County is simply to develop a first draft of an annual budget. That first draft is shared broadly and people and groups are encouraged to weigh in.

You can weigh in by attending or livestreaming the Public Hearing on the 2020 County Budget, or you can share your thoughts and opinions by contacting your County Board Supervisor.

You can contact me, too, to learn more about the budget process and accompanying constraints, but remember that I don’t have a vote on the final budget, but your County Board Supervisor does.

I know that we all have busy lives and competing demands on our time. But think about taking the time to look through my Budget Message regarding the 2020 County Budget.

2019 Budget Message-cover

If you aren’t all that interested in general government operations, maybe the planned 4-year phase out of County funding to area non-profit agencies like The Women’s Community, Marathon County Crime Stoppers, or The Marathon County Historical Society will make you want to get involved.

These organizations are slated to receive a 25% cut in County funding over the next 4 years until they are no longer receiving any funds from Marathon County Government. (Learn more on pages 18–19 of my Budget Message.)


Marathon County Crime Stoppers

Marathon County Historical Society

Some people assume that I will resist amendments to my budget draft, but that’s not true. I want the County Board to own the budget. This is consistent with their policy-making role, and Board ownership promotes community acceptance.

What some people mistake for resistance is sometimes an insistence that an added expenditure be counterbalanced with a corresponding reduction elsewhere or a revenue increase. In the end, the math has to come out.

More importantly, the budget has to serve ALL the people of Marathon County — young and old, rich and poor, urban and rural. We all share the land mass called Marathon County, and the budget is an important tool in shaping our collective success.

Please understand that the Budget Message reflects:

YOUR financial plan. YOUR community. YOUR future.

So, we’re asking for YOUR important input and careful reflections now…

Please contact your County Board Supervisor today with your comments and questions regarding the proposed 2020 County Budget.

Brad Karger - Marathon County AdministratorBrad Karger

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.

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