The State of the County, 2023
Or: Everything You Never Wanted to Know About the County Budget, But You Still Should
Every autumn the 25 departments across the county from Health and Human Services, to Parks, to the Sheriff’s Office examine their operational and program needs with a fine-tooth comb and devise a plan to keep their departments functioning and funded for the coming year.
As you likely know, the funding of the county comes from tax dollars via our own local taxpayers as well as redistribution from the federal and state governments. A significant portion of county funds comes from local property taxes and sales tax. Every year the county looks to growth in total property value from new construction (and, thereby, tax revenue) in order to counteract the effect of rising costs and new operational expenses. Portage County's net new construction last year was just 1.1% and revenue from sales tax is estimated to increase by just 2%, which does not keep up with inflation, which is running 5.4% for the year.
The State Legislature did pass Supplemental County and Municipal Aid legislation this year, which gives back to the county an additional estimated $858,000 annually (for perspective, the county budget is $134 Million). These dollars are not a gift from the State. They are our own tax dollars being returned to us to finance vital services at the county level- law enforcement, health and human services, fire protection, EMS, 911 communications, public works, courts, and transportation. These funds are tied to Wisconsin state sales tax revenue, so the County expects those funds to grow as our expenses grow as long as the legislature continues to approve the legislation going forward.
Many Portage County homeowners have recently gone through the reassessment of their property with their municipalities. As painful as this has been for many of us, Portage County has been able to decrease the tax rate for 2024 to $4.30 per $1,000 of equalized value, which is a decrease from $4.88/1,000 last year.
All of this is to say that the 2024 Portage County budget retains all core programs and services and puts the county in a good position for normal operations for the coming year.
However, I think we can all agree that the last few years, as well as the upcoming challenges we can see put us well outside anything ever considered “normal” in the past.
Portage County is facing four major construction projects in the immediate future, one of which was an unfortunate surprise.
The Ruth Gilfry building, which houses our Health and Human Services (HHS) Department, suffered major water damage in June of this year which necessitated closing the building for weeks and relocating services. The HHS department is a state-required essential service that Portage County must provide. The Ruth Gilfry building is now able to be partially used but is still not fully functional due to the need for significant repairs. Because of the age of the building and the condition of many of the mechanicals within it, this is an opportune time to fully bring the 1970s-era building up to code and upgrade the facility to fit our current and expected needs.
Originally intended to pay for itself (which it managed to do for decades) our Portage County Home has been in the red so consistently that in 2022 the county passed a referendum to fund losses up to $4.5 million dollars a year with Portage County tax dollars. The Health Care Center building is so outdated that it needs an entirely new building. Plans were underway to begin construction, but the high inflation rates experienced this year caused costs to be so exceptionally higher than expected that it put the project into a holding pattern. It is estimated to require another $3.5 million (for a total of $8 million) to fund the operating losses and expenses of building a new health care facility. The county must decide again what should be done: raise taxes again to cover the increased losses, sell the facility to another operator, or close it entirely.
And last but not least, the issue of the County Jail and the County Courthouse. Courts and a jail are both essential services that Portage County must provide under Wisconsin state statute. Both the courthouse and the jail are outdated and considered out of code, requiring safety and security upgrades, and in need of modernization in order to provide services at an acceptable standard for our citizens. This has been an ongoing and worsening situation that has been dogging us for years, and we are running full steam ahead into high inflationary cost increases for these buildings as well.
All the issues that I wrote about in last year’s budget letter are still there and are unfortunately getting worse as time goes on. While I am satisfied with the general operational budget of the county, and duly proud of the staff who continue to squeeze the proverbial blood from a turnip, the decisions over these four major capital projects primarily belong to the County Board of Supervisors. We require wise and responsible decisions to be made in the immediate future. We are reaching the end of literally years of procrastinating on projects and are coming to a point of not being financially responsible to the public to whom we serve. Supervisors are going to have to do the research to feel comfortable in making the tough decisions based on facts to stop the County from continuing poor fiscal decisions. I believe we have to get out of our own personal mindsets and look at the big picture and future for the County and lay our personal agendas aside.
I myself am looking forward to tackling these challenges that have perplexed the decision-makers in the County for too many years. Please contact our office with any questions or comments. I always appreciate hearing from you.
Portage County Executive
11.15.2023 Press Release (PDF)