Supervisors approve 2023 Lincoln County budget

Slash in Extension funding made official; tax levy up slightly; mill rates down

By Jalen Maki

Tomahawk Leader Editor

LINCOLN COUNTY – The Lincoln County Board of Supervisors, during its special meeting at the Lincoln County Service Center in Merrill on Wednesday, Nov. 2, voted to approve the 2023 county budget.

The budget includes $45,000.00 in funding for the county’s UW-Extension program next year, marking a roughly $128,000.00 (approximately 74%) reduction in funding from the approximately $173,000.00 it received in 2022.

Extension sought roughly $208,000.000 in county funding for 2023.

The approval of the spending plan caps several months of uncertainty and concern surrounding Extension and the programs and services it facilitates, including 4-H.

In effort to deal with a $1.2 million budget deficit for 2023, the Lincoln County Finance and Insurance Committee earlier this year proposed completely eliminating the county’s portion of funding for UW-Extension. Funding the county’s Extension office has been a joint effort for about a hundred years, with Extension accounting for 55% of the monies and the county providing the remaining 45%.

The proposed elimination of Extension funding led to Lincoln County residents and representatives from Extension, county 4-H clubs, Kinship of Tomahawk and other organizations utilizing public comment periods during several board meetings to speak in favor of funding Extension and/or maintaining 4-H.

The board reviewed the first balanced 2023 budget proposal, which included no Extension funding, in September.

In October, Supervisors unanimously approved an amendment allocating $45,000.00 in Forestry Department revenue to Extension in order to fund a 4-H Coordinator position, effectively maintaining the county’s 4-H program for 2023. An amendment that sought to fully fund Extension with about $200,000.00 in unassigned funds failed.

With the board’s approval of a budget that includes a massive slash in funding for Extension, the futures of many programs, services and organizations are now uncertain.

A September letter from Extension to board members said youth mental health awareness, alcohol and drug abuse education and agricultural programming would feel an impact from a lack of Extension funding.

The Tomahawk and Merrill school districts, police departments, libraries and Aspirus hospitals, as well as Kinship of Tomahawk, Tomahawk Main Street Inc., the Tomahawk Senior Center, HAVEN, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the Merrill Chamber of Commerce, Parkside Preschool Center in Merrill, the Merrill Enrichment Center, Breitenmoser Farms, the Lincoln County Health Department, Lincoln County Social Services, the Lincoln County Land Conservation Department and other organizations would also be affected, according to the letter.

Public hearing

Prior to the vote on the budget, the board recessed into a public hearing.

Several members of the public utilized the opportunity to voice their support for Extension and the programs and services under its umbrella, although the board was already set to vote on the spending plan that included a large reduction in Extension funding.

Among the speakers was Area Extension Director Art Lersch, who recognized the contributions of Extension staff “in support of Lincoln County communities.”

Lersch said that, under the 2023 budget as it was proposed and ultimately approved, “many” members of the Extension staff “will no longer be serving these communities beginning in January.”

Lersch thanked Positive Youth Development and Health and Well Being Educator Debbie Moellendorf, Agricultural Educator Scott Reuss, Community Development Educator Elizabeth McCrank, Administrative Assistant Becky Kludy, Financial Specialist Jeni Butron and 4-H Educator Melissa Yates for their efforts during their time with Extension.

Lersch also thanked those who “have come to value Extension” for their support.

“Lincoln County Extension will no longer be the same,” Lersch stated. “Many of the services you have come to expect and enjoy will no longer exist.”

 Lersch added that the remaining staff will “do what we can to ensure 4-H and FoodWIse move forward.”

Budget vote

After the public hearing, the board voted 13-5 to approve the budget.

Voting in favor were District 2 Supervisor Lori Anderson-Malm, District 4 Supervisor Steve Osness Jr., District 6 Supervisor Norbert Ashbeck, District 8 Supervisor Laurie Thiel, District 9 Supervisor and Board Chair Don Friske, District 10 Supervisor and Board Vice-Chair Jesse Boyd, District 11 Supervisor Randy Detert, District 12 Supervisor Julie DePasse, District 13 Supervisor Calvin Callahan, District 17 Supervisor George Brixius, District 18 Supervisor Ken Wickham and District 20 Supervisor Angela Cummings.

Those opposed were District 3 Supervisor Elizabeth McCrank, District 7 Supervisor Greta Rusch, District 14 Supervisor Brian Hafeman, District 16 Supervisor Michael Loka and District 19 Supervisor Julie Allen.

District 1 Supervisor William Bialecki abstained.

District 15 Supervisor Marty Lemke and District 21 Supervisor Eugene Simon were absent.

District 5 is currently vacant following the resignation of Supervisor Nathan Peterson.

Other budget notes: Wheel tax, tax levy, mill rates

The 2023 county budget will be the first in several years to not include revenue generated from the vehicle registration fee, also known as the “wheel tax.”

An ordinance creating the $20.00 vehicle registration fee was approved in Sept. 2017, and the fee went into effect on Jan. 1, 2018. The ordinance included a Dec. 31, 2018 sunset, but the fee was extended numerous times as a means of generating funds for the Lincoln County Highway Department’s budget. The most recent extension came in April 2021, when the board voted to maintain the wheel tax through 2022.

The roughly $560,000.00 generated annually from the wheel tax was allocated to road maintenance, new construction, snow removal and other Highway Department operations.

In July, the board voted 14-3 to formally allow the wheel tax to sunset at the end of this year. The absence of wheel tax revenue ultimately contributed to the $1.2 million budget deficit the board was tasked with overcoming in the several months preceding the budget vote last week. 

The 2023 tax levy will be $15,113,054.00, an increase of about $63,000.00 (0.42%) from the $15,049,934.00 levied in 2022.

The county’s equalized valuation will increase roughly $345,000,000.00 (12.54%) from $2,748,951,800.00 in 2022 to $3,093,555,100.00 in 2023.

The increase in equalized valuation will lead to a decrease in mill rates next year. Mill rates in townships will be about roughly $4.89 per $1,000.00 in valuation, while city mill rates will be approximately $4.66 per $1,000.00 in valuation.

Mill rates in Lincoln County townships and cities have declined each year since 2017.

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