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Friday, August 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 84.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Walker budget cuts hit small town Wisconsin
With less funding, communities struggle to provide services
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After he signed the new Wisconsin budget this past June, Gov. Scott Walker left the stage set up at Fox Valley Metal-Tech Inc., in Green Bay, while John Mellencamp's "Small Town" played over loudspeakers. It's a song that speaks to small-town values of responsibility and thrift, qualities Walker and his Republican colleagues call their own. But was the song choice also a warning?

Under Walker's biennial budget, Wisconsin's small towns are going to have to figure out how to keep their operations running with considerably less money. It cuts shared revenues - state funds directed back to communities to lower property taxes and to help them provide a level of basic services - and essentially prohibits these same communities from raising property taxes. Moneys for recycling are also cut by 40%. All this at a time when municipal government receipts have decreased and the cost of doing business keeps rising.

The budget cuts, which kick in the coming year, will be significant for some Dane County communities. The village of Oregon will be one of the hardest hit, with a loss of $150,000 in state and county aid.

"Anytime you're talking about municipal government, about 70% to 75% of your budget is personnel," says village administrator Mike Gracz. "So when you start looking at changes to a budget, you have to start looking at positions."

You wouldn't think a $150,000 reduction in a $5 million village budget would force big changes. But Oregon, like many Wisconsin communities, has dealt with shrinking budgets for many years now. The Oregon village board, for example, instituted a property-tax cap several years back. At the time, new development was pretty strong, adding about 5% to 6% to the local tax base annually. But new development has ground to a halt.

Gracz is upbeat as he promises to present a balanced budget to the village board this month. Last year, the village decided not to hire for three summer positions, distributing the landscaping and grass cutting instead to permanent employees; similar changes will likely be made in next year's operations. A cut in village services? Gracz isn't willing to go that far yet, though he sounds like a guy running out of options when he talks about the future.

"If you can't raise taxes and you have limited growth, you're probably going to have to start cutting services at some point," he says. "You can balance out these deficits for a few years, and our department heads have done a really good job at that. But at some point [the lack of funds] is going to be felt in municipal services."

Oregon is not alone in feeling the squeeze. Black Earth expects to see $16,000 less in 2012 thanks to Walker's budget.

"We should be able to absorb the $16,000 hit," says Black Earth village president Pat Troge. "How much wiggle room do we actually have? That's what we're going to find out."

Past budgets for Black Earth have already incorporated a number of cuts. The village, for instance, used to provide weekly brush chipping. That went to every third week in 2010. And other changes may be coming. Black Earth is a member of NorthWest Dane Senior Services, a nonprofit agency providing nutrition and health care service programs to seniors in rural communities of northwestern Dane County. People in Black Earth think NorthWest Dane is a very worthy program, says Troge, and the village provides an annual financial contribution to it.

"We haven't had to cut back on any of that funding," Troge says. "But it is one of the programs we'll have to take a look at for next year."

From here on out, Troge adds, public works expenditures will be decided on a "need versus want" basis. Last year, Black Earth had to borrow money for several critical road construction projects. Troge says he's heard from a number of local residents about streets they'd like to see improved, but these projects might have to wait. "Those are 'wants," Troge explains. "Right now, we have to stick with the 'needs.'"

Improving and maintaining roads is a major township expenditure. The state pays towns $2,117 annually per roadway mile for upkeep and related projects, and Walker's budget retains that contribution. Yet, with so many other cuts in the mix, Wisconsin drivers may have to get used to driving on more unpaved roads, says Rick Stadelman, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association, which represents over 1,200 townships and 20 villages around the state. Stadelman says he knows of several townships with blacktop roads in need of repair that have opted to dig out the blacktop and go back to gravel.

"You still have a cost to maintain gravel, but it's considerably less than blacktop," Stadelman says.

Then there are the recycling cuts. Walker's budget eliminated recycling funds altogether, but the Legislature ended up restoring 60% of the funding, which means a reduction from $30 million to $19 million. Cities, towns and villages access this fund through community recycling grants. Stadelman says larger communities with sizable recycling programs will see relatively small cuts to their grants. But unincorporated towns and villages can expect hefty reductions, which may force them to make significant changes to their recycling programs.

"I'm hearing that more of our members are going to recycling dropoff sites instead of the more costly curbside pickups with their weekly trash collections," says Stadelman. "That preserves community recycling - but the reality is less recycling gets done when people have to bring in their recyclables."

Small-town dwellers can expect to pay more in fees, too. Fees like the one Mount Horeb instituted in 2010 to offset the cost of providing fire hydrants and water to put out fires. Homeowners pay roughly $7.45 a month on their water and sewer bill for this service, but businesses can pay hundreds of dollars a month or more, depending on the size of their water metering system.

David Becker, Mount Horeb village president, can't say enough good things about his department heads and the ways they have cut and trimmed to make recent budgets work. But it has meant trying to provide the same services with less money. And in 2012, Becker expects to pull in approximately $50,000 less in state aid than he did in 2010.

He says the police department needs another officer but there simply isn't money for it. The stagnant economy only makes things worse. Mount Horeb used to count on collecting $20,000 or more a year in building permits and new development applications. Last year, those sources brought in only $4,000.

"You work with what you have," Becker says. "Just like all of us have to do at home."

For Becker, there is also a bright side. "Our capital improvements budget is pretty skimpy for next year, but at least we have one," he says. "There are many communities that don't."

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