The 2021 Budget :: A Plan to Maintain Our Public Services & Address Long-Term Financial Challenges — All While Cutting the Tax Rate

Written by Lance Leonhard

Each November, municipal governments in Wisconsin, including Marathon County Government, adopt their annual budgets. The approval of the budget is the most important policy decision that a government body makes each year. Simply put, the budget identifies a government’s priorities. Our County budget tells me — and the other 700+ County Government employees — what work to tackle in the next year.

But, the importance of a budget certainly extends beyond the next calendar year. In fact, the best budgets prepare a community to address future challenges well before they become emergent needs.

With that background offered, let’s talk about the Proposed 2021 Annual Budget…

2021 Annual Budget Message - cover

What priorities are identified in the Proposed 2021 Budget?

As we began building the 2021 Budget, our team knew we would be facing difficult financial pressures. Apart from the pressures we face every year as a result of Wisconsin’s levy limits, effects from the pandemic added considerable financial strain. Counties play an important role in combating the spread of coronavirus, and they will be integral in the dissemination of a vaccine, when it is developed. These activities are extremely important; however, it is unclear if federal or state funding will be provided to carry out those efforts.

Our focus in building this budget was twofold:

  • First, we needed to build a budget that continued to deliver the high-quality programs and services that our residents have come to expect.
  • Second, we needed to ensure that our budget adequately protected our long-term financial position.

The proposed 2021 Budget delivers on each of these goals.

No County-delivered programs or services are eliminated in the proposed budget. That might sound like a small accomplishment, but as I explain in my Budget Message, in light of our financial pressures, it’s actually quite a feat. Across the board, our staff worked diligently to ensure that we maintained our commitments to the public, while holding budgets flat. We protect our financial future by adopting conservative revenue estimates and providing for a significant contingency account to fund unforeseen expenses.

How does the 2021 Budget help us prepare for the long-term challenges we see on the horizon? And, what’s happening to your tax rate? I’m glad you asked…

As we look to the future, we recognize a number of significant challenges. Importantly, the proposed 2021 Budget provides strategic investments to help us overcome our financial challenges, protect our long-term financial position, and address future challenges.  The Budget Message discusses each of these areas in greater detail, but here are a couple examples of strategies we will implement as part of our 2021 Budget…

Criminal Justice System Budgeting

Public safety spending already comprises a significant portion of the County’s budget. Unfortunately, the needs of those departments continue to grow. While we have been able to add several positions to our Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney’s Office over each of the last several years, additional needs within the justice system persist. We need a new approach to meet these needs. The 2021 Budget calls for us to adopt a “system-budgeting” approach that encourages collaboration and cooperative decision making among our justice system departments.

UniverCity Year Program

To ensure we meet our long-term goals, we need to make sure we have quality plans in place to guide our work. Through the UniverCity Year Program, we hope to secure the assistance of the University of Wisconsin–Madison on 25 projects, including:

  • Updating our Groundwater Protection Plan,
  • Studying disparity in our justice system,
  • Assessing the efficacy of our Start Right program,
  • Identifying strategies to improve emergency service response times,
  • …and more.

The proposed budget sets aside funds to participate in the UniverCity Year Program. (Watch this brief video to learn more about this incredible program.)

Broadband Expansion

Reliable access to high-speed broadband is a prerequisite to seemingly everything we do. The pandemic has made this abundantly clear, as virtual education, remote work, and tele-medicine have become household terms. The proposed 2021 Budget calls for $250,000 to be allocated for use on broadband expansion projects, including matching funds for Public Service Commission grants.

*  *  *

What does this budget mean for your taxes?

In 2021, the tax rate will drop by 18 cents, from $4.71 to $4.53, a reduction of approximately 4%. While the tax rate decreased, the equalized value (the taxable value of all property in the county) increased by 6.6%. That means that property value for the “average homeowner” went up over $10,000, while their total tax bill only increased by $17.01.

So, what’s the next step in the budget process?

Before the budget is formally considered each year, the County Board holds a public hearing on the proposed budget. The purpose of the public hearing is to give everyone in the community the opportunity to weigh in on the budget and express their thoughts on how the County should allocate its resources.

The public hearing is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, November 5, 2020, at the Marathon County Courthouse in the Assembly Room. If you’re considering attending the budget hearing, I invite you to read my Budget Message (available on the County’s website) and watch this recording of my presentation of the budget to the full board (presentation begins at approximately 28:30 of the video).

The public hearing, like all meetings of the County Board, is open to the public, livestreamed on Government & Education Cable Channel 981 of Wausau Area Access Media, and is available on our YouTube Channel.

This year, in an attempt to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19, you will have the opportunity to participate in the public hearing via telephone. The number to call in for the meeting will be clearly noted on the meeting agenda, which is available, like all County Board and Committee meetings, on the county website calendar.

If you are considering attending the meeting in person, we ask that you practice all appropriate steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — wear a face covering, watch your distance, and wash your hands. The County has implemented a number of processes to mitigate the risk of spreading the disease, and we need your help to be successful.

If you are not interested in making a comment at the meeting, but would like to express your feelings on the budget to your elected County Board Supervisor, you can find your representative and his or her contact information on the County Board page of our website.

The County Board will formally consider the budget, including any proposed amendments to it, on Tuesday, November 10, 2020, at 7:00 p.m.

I encourage everyone to take a moment to review the proposed 2021 County Budget. If you have comments or questions, please contact your County Board Supervisor. They want and appreciate your feedback and suggestions.

After all, this is YOUR County budget.

Lance Leonard - Marathon County Deputy Administrator

Lance Leonhard

Marathon County Administrator

Lance Leonhard began his career in Marathon County Government in the Office of Corporation Counsel. He then served as Deputy Administrator and currently serves as the Marathon County Administrator. Lance’s career in public service has spanned more than a decade, having worked for the federal government as a law clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and for the state of Wisconsin as an Assistant District Attorney. Outside of work, you’re likely to find Lance spending time with his family, traveling, teeing off on a local golf course, or sitting around a campfire with friends.  Email Lance Leonhard

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