MARINETTE — If the 2019 budget is approved as presented, the Marinette County tax rate will drop again next year.

The Administrative Committee Thursday recommended the Marinette County Board of Supervisors approve the budget, which calls for a tax rate of $4.44 per $1,000 of assessed value. The rate this year is $4.50 per $1,000 and the rate in 2017 was $4.56 per $1,000.

County Administrator John Lefebvre explained why the tax rate is decreasing. “As our equalized valuation continues to increase, as people’s property becomes worth more, our rate will continue to go down,” he said.

The county’s proposed operating tax levy in 2019 is about $16.05 million. That’s up from this year’s total of about $15.8 million. Operation expenditures in 2019 are a proposed $54,730,723 — that’s higher than this year’s $53,461,675.

The committee approved advancing the proposed budget by a vote of 4-2, with supervisors Mark Anderson and Rick Polzin voting against. Supervisors Vilas Schroeder, the committee chairman, along with John Guarisco, Don Pazynski and Tricia Grebin voted in favor.

Anderson, the county board chairman, and Polzin voted no because they wanted to see the debt service tax rate eliminated. It’s proposed to be 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, the same amount it was this year.

Lefebvre said he proposed to go with the debt service levy again this year and use that money to offset the capital improvements and build up the fund balance in debt service. “It will put us in a position that with the sales tax we get in 2020 and with that fund balance and debt service levy, we will be able to make a larger payment of almost $4 million.” He said that debt for the law enforcement center, along with some communications and maintenance, will be taken off the books in 2020.

Polzin said he has some concerns about the debt service levy. “I understand where we are going, but when I look at $28 million of unassigned balance, it seems like an extraordinary amount of money to have available and not being doing anything,” he said. “It’s collecting interest, but not really generating any economic development for the county. I don’t really like to see us maxing out our taxes that we pass along to the citizens.

“Since 2008 we’ve had this money sitting there and it’s done very little for economic development.”

Polzin said Marinette County is among the highest taxed counties for debt.

“I think we have to at least start to change our direction,” he said. “I realize we’re trying to do some of that. But I guess I’m a little more impatient. I would like to see us try to take bigger swings at it since we’ve got so much money available. I think the debt service fund is nice but I think we have a fund balance that we could use to subsidize the budget going forward.

“To me the biggest economic development you can give to a county is to give everyone a tax break.”

Schroeder disagreed. “If you give a tax break, it’s a one-time thing, it’s a short-lived thing,” he said. “If you spend your reserves, you’re just setting yourself up for failure down the road.” 

Lefebvre said eliminating the debt service levy would decrease the fund balance. He said by following the current plan the debt service levy could be eliminated in 2024.

Pazynski said he’s in favor of the current plan of proceeding cautiously and not being too aggressive. “We need to have a business plan,” he said.

Polzin said the county’s money sitting in a bank collecting 2 percent interest is not worth as much as money put into the economy. “That’s where I want to put this money, I want to put it back in the hands of the people,” he said. “There’s no reason to sit on taxpayer money getting 2 percent when you can get 7 or 8 (percent).”

Anderson said the county is losing money for county taxpayers because of the low interest rate. “We either find a place for that (money) to go or we start bringing it down and giving tax relief,” he said, adding that the Community REC Center in Marinette will be a great investment for the county in terms of rate of return. “To have that money sitting there getting 2 percent is a waste.”

Polzin said the county needs to find a way to increase tourism and economic development.

“This money has sat there since 2008 and when you look at the county, it has continued to decline in population, it has continued to go the wrong way,” he said. “The population is getting older. People are leaving. We need to make them stay. I don’t want to spend it all. ... There are good things we can do with that money.”

Lefebvre said there is no right or wrong answer, but to remember if the debt service levy is eliminated, the culpable debt will increase by about $1 million per year. 

The proposed 2019 budget includes $4.48 million in capital improvements. Some of those costs include $400,000 for redundant fiber optics for the county, $375,000 for renovations to the Ella Court Street building (the former jail), $254,800 for tri-axle dump truck(s) and $182,000 for a mower tractor with side deck. The highway department capital improvements total about $1.2 million and that includes repair work to county trunks G and P.

Polzin asked about funds being allocated to improve County Trunk I between McClintock Park and Goodman Park in the northern part of the county.

“It’s not on there yet,” Lefebvre said. “It may jump in next year, but it’s not on there yet.” He added that discussions are taking place internally to improve that section of roadway.

Anderson said a lot of discussion needs to take place before the county invests in that road, but added “I agree something needs to be done, that’s one of the most beautiful parks we have.”

Anderson said it’s a shame that motorists hit the gravel road and then turn around because of the road condition of County Trunk I.

In another matter, the board was informed that Laura Mans, the assistant finance director, has been appointed by Lefebvre as the interim finance director. Longtime Finance Director Pat Kass is retiring and his last official day is today.