A county in northern Wisconsin will be asking voters this spring to raise property taxes by nearly $ 1 million for the next five years after hitting what leaders are calling a financial crisis.
In a 14: 3 vote, Ashland County’s board members on Tuesday approved a resolution to put voters in a referendum to increase the tax levy by $ 938,638 for the next five years. Property taxes for the average home worth $ 113,000 would rise by $ 87 each year.
Clark Schroeder, administrator for Ashland County, said state restrictions on property tax increases in place since 2006 have limited the amount of money the county can bring in to pay for services. A 2011 law tied any increase in the tax charge to the new build, adding $ 25,000 to Ashland County’s 2021 budget.
Soaring costs, including health insurance, forced the county to borrow money to fund road projects and move money to keep operations going.
“Without stabilizing the budget and aligning the commissioned services with local revenues, there is a risk that we will not be able to pay our bills within two years,” said Schröder.
Schröder informed the board members that the district may not be able to pay the bills as early as 2022.
The county’s financial problems have been worsening for years. Ashland County tabled a similar motion to voters in a 2018 referendum after addressing rising costs of law enforcement, health and personal services related to substance abuse. The majority of the residents entitled to vote could not support this.
If the county cannot grow revenue, board members will have to cut funding for outside services provided by the Ashland County Aging Unit, Bay Area Rural Transit, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Division of Extension. Ashland County’s board member Laura Nagro said they need to keep searching for ways to generate revenue, hinting that this could be a tough sale during the COVID-19 crisis.
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“We’re all in a bad time with COVID and job consistency and just mental health issues. I mean, it’s been a full year of cabin fever,” Nagro said. “We have to be the ones to hold onto it and we have to be the ones to sell it.”
Matt MacKenzie was one of three county board members who voted against the referendum, saying he saw no “hope in Hades” that voters would approve.
“The same wallets pay for these taxes whether it’s school, (tech college), county, town, or town, and they keep rising,” MacKenzie said. “We have to stop the line somewhere or start cutting services.”
The county should have around $ 3 million in budget that is not earmarked for use to account for unknown expenses. These unallocated funds have decreased from $ 3.6 million in 2015 to $ 962,507 in 2019. Schröder believes that amount has dropped to around $ 600,000 by the end of last year. He said Ashland County could become the first county in the state to run out of money.
“We will somehow have to freeze the debt levy because we have taken out all these loans,” said Schröder. “We have to take out bank loans to pay back the money just to do the paycheck no matter what we do.”
Board member Philomena Kebec said they should make it clear to lawmakers that government restrictions have placed the county in an “intolerable position”.
The referendum will appear on the ballot paper during the April elections. If approved, voters would see the change in their property tax bill starting next year.