Wright County Board preparing for 2018 budget process

In the middle of summer with fireworks flying overhead has little to do with the Christmas holiday, but, for the Wright County Board of Commissioners, there is a common thread.

July is when the board starts pre-planning for the 2018 budget, which won’t officially be adopted until the final meeting of 2017, but it is a process that requires months to accomplish.

With the county preparing for a $40-50 million courts project, the strain on taxpayers will be heightened, but, Board Chairman Charlie Borrell said the biggest immediate impact will be adding personnel – a requirement given the needs for services given the sustained growth in the county.

Last year, the county board received requests for 19 new hires, but settled on 10 because of the costs associated with adding employees.

“I think the biggest challenge is going to be with personnel,” Borrell said. “We’re always confronted with the demand for more people. It’s a continual challenge that we face to get staffing levels to the right numbers. Department heads are focused only on their departments and can demonstrate that they need more help. But, you hear that from a lot of departments and you have to make difficult decisions of picking and choosing which hires we approve and which we delay out a year or two.”

An area of particular interest is going to be the Information Technology Department. A decade ago, when internet advancements were coming fast and furious, the county was late to recognizing the need to invest in it, especially given the economic downturn that was taking place at the time.

While the county has made big strides in that regard, they’re still behind the curve and trying to catch up, something Commissioner Mark Daleiden said is a process that will require an investment.

”Technology is a big issue,” Daleiden said. “There are such advancements in technology and we’re pretty far behind in that respect. I’ve think we’ve done a good job of bringing the county closer to where we need to be, but there is still a lot of work to do to get where we want to be and where we need to be moving forward.”

The most difficult part of the county’s budget that they try to explain to taxpayers is when an increase isn’t actually an increase. The 2017 levy (the amount paid by taxpayers) was 4.99 percent. But, for most taxpayers, that didn’t translate into a tax increase.

It’s a riddle that can be confusing and isn’t possible in non-growth counties, but Commissioner Mike Potter said that Wright County’s continued growth makes it not only possible, but practical.

“It was a 4.99 percent increase, but, if your property tax valuation didn’t go up, it was a zero increase on your property taxes from the county,” Potter said. “We had $185 million come in with new construction value in the county in 2016, which spread the total amount of levy dollars to a bigger pie. We have $223 million in new construction value for next year’s taxes. If you don’t capture that new grew immediately, they start requiring services and costing you. With $223 million dividing it into the levy – it’s a complicated formula, but in put in in simplistic terms – you could have a levy increase of right about 5.38 percent before your start reaching into the taxpayer’s pocket.”

Potter said the key to preventing gigantic budget/levy increases is getting ahead of the growth of the county and preparing for what is coming in a systematic approach. Wright County has experienced steady growth. Taking a proactive approach is what the county is seeking to do to manage and maintain the growth.

“When it comes to growth and development, either you plan it or it plans you,” Potter said. “If you do nothing and put your head in the sand while development catches up and you’ve haven’t taken advantage of it, that’s when mistakes happen.”

One of the biggest differences that will take place in the budget process will be the absence of former Commissioner Pat Sawatzke. He spent more than a quarter-century on the board and was instrumental in 2013, when not only four new commissioners came on board, but so did new County Coordinator Lee Kelly.

Former County Coordinator Dick Norman had been overseeing the budget process for more than 20 years and, when he retired in June 2013, it created a lot of new people with new budget responsibilities
Kelly said that Sawatzke’s role in the budget process was integral for the first couple of years and the process will be considerably different without his involvement this time around.

“Commissioner Sawatzke was instrumental to the process, especially after Dick Norman resigned and we were all basically thrown into the fire at the same time,” Kelly said. “He brought a lot of historical perspective to the process. It’s never easy to replace someone who served the county for 26 years. Wright County went through a lot of change during that time and he was an important person to that period of time. It will be a lot different without him, but we’ve had enough experience at this that we know the process and won’t be surprised by anything that comes up during the process.

The only new person to the process will be Commissioner Darek Vetsch, who replaced Sawatzke on the board in January. He may be relatively new to the board, but he has his own ideas about how the county should prepare its 2018 budget and levy. It involves more than just figuring out short-term expenditures and revenues. It includes looking with an eye to the future so as to try to keep levy increases manageable.

“My expectation is that we’re going to keep a sound footwork for the future by preparing in advance for the needs of the county by budgeting for future expenses,” Vetsch said. “We’re not going slam the citizens with big bills all of the sudden because we didn’t plan for those expenses.

When residents get the property tax statements, they may well include increases, but Daleiden was quick to point out that residents should evaluate their tax statements, because, while there are likely to be increases – some of them significant – the county likely won’t be the source of it.

“When people get their property taxes, they’re likely going to go up,” Daleiden said. “That’s just the reality. But, if they look at what changed from last year to this year or this year to next year, it likely isn’t going to be the county where they will see a big increase, if they have one. You have to look closer at it and see what the city or township or school district did. Chances are that’s where the greatest increases will come from.”

The budgeting process is one of the most important things the county board of commissioners does each year. Residents will find out in September how much the increases are likely to be and they will be finalized in late December, but that process will begin in the heat of summer, as the board tries to match up needs while keeping tax increases to a minimum for county residents.

Freelancer John Holler covers government and the Wright County Board of Commissioners.