The 2021 county budget was unanimously approved on Tuesday, Nov. 10 following discussion of a failed amendment motion.

The levy to be collected in 2021 was approved at $8,904,595. The total expenses after reimbursements was approved at $11,619,304.

Finance Director Kitzie Winters said the sales tax in 2021 is projected to be up, in part due to internet purchases.

During the public hearing, only Rusk County Sheriff Jeff Wallace spoke, requesting an amendment and reconsideration of an addition to the county budget. According to Wallace, four vehicles in the Sheriff’s Department are rotated out of service each year. During the budget approval process, approximately $135,250 for the vehicles had been removed from the department’s budget.

At the time of the rotation the squad vehicles typically have 135,000-150,000 miles and many hours of idle time. Wallace said safety and security are his primary focus and he believes high mileage vehicles with higher repair costs endanger that focus.

According to Winters, resale prices of law enforcement vehicles at auction is usually between $4,500 and $7,500 depending on the buyer. County Administrator Andy Albarado said not including new tires, oil changes and damages covered by insurance, repairs costs average between $1,500 and $4,300 for the whole fleet. In 2020, repairs costs were approximately $2,850, according to Albarado.

The window for ordering law enforcement vehicles is short and is typically done in January and receipt of those vehicles is usually in April or early May. Manufacturers only make law enforcement vehicles for a certain period of time each year. Due to COVID-19, according to Wallace, receipt of the 2020 vehicles did not take place until the later part of 2020.

Postponing the purchase of the squads would affect the annual rotation of squads and, according to Wallace, have further consequences for officer safety, costs to the county and possibly other unforeseen consequences.

Winters said that in years past the cost of the squad vehicles is charged back to the county through an internal squad borrowing program. This year that program is not available. If new squad vehicles were purchased, they would need to be purchased on loan as a capital amount because the county is working toward keeping more cash on hand. “We took out everything we could borrow for,” said Winters in speaking of the 2021 budget. 

Supervisor Mark Schmidt made a motion to amend the 2021 county budget to add back into the budget the amount needed for the Sheriff’s Department to purchase four new squads.

Supervisor Randy Tatur made the argument the county has just received the 2020 vehicles and delaying the next purchase of squad vehicles would be important. “The budget this year was incredibly difficult,” said Tatur.

Albarado said the county is seeking to change the annual rotation to an 18-month rotation where replacement vehicles would be purchase every 18-months instead of every 12-months. “The property committee expressed wanting a bigger hand in keeping vehicles before selling,” said Albarado.

Supervisor Mike Hraban disagreed with the amendment and said the squad vehicles are only four or five-years old when rotated out and instead of going to an auction, the vehicles should be kept and used within the county fleet for Meals on Wheels and other needs. 

The current Meals on Wheels vehicles, according to supervisor Tim Miller, need a lot of repairs. “We can reassign vehicles to get the value we need,” said Albarado.

New law enforcement vehicles are approximately $30,000 each plus $3,000 to move the equipment from the old vehicle into the new one. Hraban said that while it’s important to keep the officers safe, selling the vehicles for $5,000 loses a lot of money for the county.

“We have to take a good look with four cars losing $100,000 [value] maybe it’s not doing the right thing, turning them over,” said Hraban.

Supervisor Tony Hauser requested to have the invoices and repairs tracked to determine if the vehicles costing the most in repairs are the ones being rotated out and the others being kept longer. Supervisor Jerry Biller agreed with Hauser. At this time tracking vehicles for repair costs is not being done, according to Winters.

Schmidt said, “the way police drive a car is different than a regular citizen.” Because of this difference, Schmidt said it is important officers are driving cars that work well.

The four vehicles being prepared for auction, after being replaced in 2020, have between $79,000 and $90,000 miles.

Albarado said that during the budget process revenue and expenses were taken out. Winters said that while the county has great borrowing capacity, the county is down $500,000 in revenue since last year due to a loss of stumpage revenue. In 2019 stumpage revenue accounted for $1.3 million, according to Winters.

“Within a few years we will have to make harder decisions,” said Winters. To keep more cash on hand, Winters said if the amendment is approved, she would recommend borrowing for the squads, however, the decision would come back to the county board to request the money. 

The general fund in the 2021 budget dropped and cuts have been made across departments including a $250,000 in the Highway Department’s levy. “We’ve definitely made progress, but more there’s work to be done,” said Winters.

Supervisor Dave Willingham said, “I think the Finance Committee’s intention was to order [the next squads] in 2021 and put the cost on the 2022 budget.” 

“I am worried about more borrowing, the budget just gets more and more difficult. We have to do more with a little bit less,” said Biller. 

Supervisor Josh Unterscheutz told the board, “I strongly support law enforcement, no doubt, I am also fiscally responsible and believe you don’t spend money you don’t have.”

The amendment to add $135,250 to the capital project budget for four county squads failed to pass with a 2-17 roll call vote. The supervisors approved the 2021 levy unanimously.

Also during the meeting, the 2021-2025 15-year forestry plan was unanimously approved. The plan is available on the Rusk County website. Forestry Director Jeremy Koslowski said Rusk County is the 13th largest county in considering county forested land. The plan is a planning tool and while pared down from previous years, few changes were made.

Albarado presented an update on the status of COVID-19 to the county board saying the number of confirmed cases has increased within the last month, and even week, to having hundred’s of active cases. Rusk County is lucky to only have a few deaths. 

Public Health has added three contact tracers and an investigator.

In terms of county employees, the county is seeing more positive cases in county employees and it is impacting the workforce. More employees are working from home with the hopes to slow the spread of the disease.

Albarado said with some of the COVID-19 money the county is expecting, upgrades to the technical and sound equipment in the conference room will be made.

As the number of cases and deaths work through the system, the county is seeing a delay or lag time of a few days. 

The county is seeing, said Albarado, 20-40 new cases daily.

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