County supervisors were presented with the proposed 2021 budget during the Sept. 28 county board meeting, heard an update on the blacktop plant and approved two resolutions.

Finance Director Kitzie Winters said the proposed Rusk County levy is $8,926,851 for 2021. The proposed levy is a $91,727 increase, or 1.04 percent more than, the 2020 levy. The proposed tax rate for 2021 is slightly higher than last year and is expected to be $7.18 per $1,000 of equalized valuation compared with $7.15 per $1,000 of property valuation the prior year.

Winters said each of the county departments were asked to reduce their department budgets by five percent to help meet the levy. 

As part of the cost saving plan, county employees could be required to take two furlough days in 2021. Each day of furlough would save the county $25,000, according to Winters. At this time, no layoffs or program cuts are expected. 

County Administrator Andy Albarado said the two furlough days are being looked at as discretionary. “We could get to the end of the year and not use them, depending on how we do,” said Albarado.

The largest impact on the 2021 budget is the decreased revenue from the loss of stumpage. This time last year, the county had budgeted stumpage revenue to be $1.48 million, however, because the mills have shut down, the count is currently under $500,000 stumpage revenue. 

County employees will likely see changes to their health insurance including having to pay copayments. Winters said the county would save $210,000 on the health savings accounts. Albarado said some counties only offer HRA’s to their employees, and the HSA is still generous.

With the change in health insurance, Albarado said the county is looking at engaging in wellness programs and biometric health screenings as a way to bring health costs down and to allow the county to be more competitive to insurance companies.

 The 2021 budget includes a $250,000 contingency budget in Health and Human Services.

Winters said the county was able to save money toward the budget in 2019 by not replacing some position vacancies and going forward will re-evaluate wages for new hires. Winters said the county will need to plan to allocate a $360,000 to $400,000 savings yearly to support the growing needs of the county.

Overall, Winters said the county looks great on paper and has a lot of reserve to which the county could consider borrowing if needed.

County Board Chairman Dave Willingham said the finance committee did a good job at maintaining the debt level.

Albarado said the county has plenty of debt capacity and borrowing would generally not be an issue and currently the interest rates are a record low being below one percent. By 2030 the county will be out of debt.

Supervisor Mike Hraban said the finance committee had a challenging job taking $500,000-$600,000 out of the budget. Revenue from stumpage pays for the operation of the service and will affect the county’s need to bond. Similar to the highway department, said Hraban, if roads are not being built, revenue isn’t being generated.

Rusk County Highway Commissioner Scott Emch presented an update on the asphalt plant construction and thus far it is on schedule for testing and should be operational and ready to make asphalt by next week. The Highway Department is beginning to schedule asphalt projects to complete yet this fall. Emch said there are about six weeks left to complete some projects.

The project was originally bonded for $1.5 million as an estimate. The asphalt plant will replace the county’s plant that was new in 1963. The new plant is was built in 2000 and is a refurbished, counter-flow plant, according to Emch, who also said a new plant would require a several year wait list to order and would cost between $5 and $6 million. “A new plant would have been out of the question,” said Emch.

Very few used asphalt plants are available anywhere in the country which makes it very difficult to purchase not only used plants but also used components.

Emch said the cost currently is estimated around $1.6 million. Some additional expenses have come from purchasing a silo to hold the asphalt and a conveyor belt. Emch said they are trying to use parts from the old plant when possible.

Funds for the plant come directly from the Highway Department, which he said is self-sustainable, as the funds come from building roads. Any additional costs incurred could be met by borrowing, according to Winters.

Emch said, despite there only being six weeks left in the season, the department will be able to pave what they have under contract to pave, which is about 10,000-12,000 tons. A break even asphalt season would require 15,000 tons to be paved. 

The new plant will be able to recycle black top by crushing it and reusing some of the oil originally use to prepare it. This will significantly reduce the cost of building roads. A recycled mix typically has 15-25 percent recycled oil in it, according to Emch.

When asked about the cost of asphalt, Emch said the cost to townships is only four percent over the cost of materials. This four percent rate is the administration costs to operate and if that amount was not charged, the additional cost would need to be generated from somewhere within the budget.

Emch said there are several townships within the county that are refusing to use the Highway Shop as their source of asphalt. Emch was disappointed in the lack of community support by townships to use their own resources and instead outsource their projects to private businesses that charge more to taxpayers. 

Taxpayers in townships are the ones who own the equipment and are yet refusing use those resources paid by the taxpayers, according to Emch. He urged the supervisors to contact counties that do not have asphalt plants to ask how they are affected by being forced to use private businesses to pave roads.

Emch said that as a government entity, the Highway Shop is not allowed to make money and is required to keep costs as low as possible on projects. Many bids that the Highway Shop could be doing, Emch’s bids are lower than competitors yet several townships are not utilizing his services.

The county supervisors approved a resolution supporting the passage of Federal legislation known as the “Commitment to Veteran Support Outreach Act.” The act is a grant that, if passed, would allow Veteran Service Officers (VSO) to add more services to military veterans.

Rusk County VSO Eric Stoker said the act would allow him to better promote the health and wellness of veterans, improve outreach to veterans and hopefully prevent veteran suicide. The grant money would not be used for VSO salary, only for additional services for veterans.

The resolution reflects that veteran suicide continues to rise nationwide with approximately 14 of the 20 veterans who die each day by suicide are not under the care of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Rusk County per capita has a high numbers of veterans and if the grant came to fruition, would be a win-win for the county,” said Stoker.

County supervisors also approved a resolution to revise the zoning fee schedule for permits as of Jan. 1.  After recognizing that many of the permit fees were significantly lower than comparable counties such as Washburn, Barron, Sawyer, Price and Taylor counties, the suggestion was made to increase the fees to be closer to the average of those counties.

Approximately 70 percent of those individuals seeking a permit are not area residents. Many of the permits are requested in lake townships, according to Rusk County Conservationist and Land Conservation and Development Department Director Nick Stadnyk.

The resolution authorizes the Zoning Department to regularly review the permit fee schedule every two years to remain competitive with other counties.

Stadnyk said the goal is to cover the costs incurred from the paperwork and follow up for granting permits.

The zoning fees have not been adjusted since 2009. 

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