by CHRIS ROGERS
On Tuesday, Buffalo County and Fountain City will ask voters if they support raising taxes to pay for basic services and infrastructure.
Buffalo County advisory referendum on road repair funding
On Tuesday, Buffalo County will ask voters whether they support the county borrowing $4 million to repair county roads. County officials reported that county roads are breaking down faster than the county can fix them because it does not have enough funds to keep up with all the needed repairs. They stated that with $4 million, the county could catch up on that backlog. According to the county, the proposed debt payments would increase property taxes on a $100,000 home by $46 per year. The county is considering a 10-year loan.
“We need to get back on track or else we need to look at alternative ways of maintaining our roads,” Buffalo County Administrative Coordinator Sonya Hansen stated. “What are we going to do? Are we going to go back to gravel?”
The ballot question is an advisory referendum, meaning that the county is using the referendum essentially as a poll of voters’ preferences and the results of the referendum are not binding. Hansen explained that the County Board approved the advisory referendum after listening to some citizens’ opposition to borrowing for road repair. “We hear that from some people, but is that the majority of the people or is that just a few voices?” Hansen said. “So [County Board members] wanted to get a better idea from the entire county if people wanted them to go and borrow money.” Paying off the debt would increase taxes, she noted. Given that, she asked, “Do the voters really want us to fix the roads?”
That is the purpose of the referendum: to find out what voters want. However, because it is an advisory referendum, the county is not strictly bound by law to follow its results. If voters approve the referendum, the County Board will likely move forward with the proposed loan, Hansen said. However, the County Board could, theoretically, chose to do something other than what the majority of voters support.
If the County Board decides to borrow, county officials are considering spending $4 million over three years on repairs to the county’s worst roads. That would be a very significant increase to the county’s normal road repair budget, which Hansen estimated at $1.7 million per year, but an extra $4 million will not solve the county’s road repair needs forever.
“We’re hopeful at the state level,” Hansen said, referring to hopes of a long-term road funding solution. “Buffalo County is not unique in this problem. It’s a statewide problem. So we’re hopeful that our partners in Madison and at the federal level are looking at these problems and the issues with the road projects.”
Fountain City’s referendum on funding new fire station
On Tuesday, Fountain City will ask voters for permission to raise the city’s property tax levy by around 17 percent in order to help fund a new fire station and firetruck. Fountain City and three surrounding townships plan to contribute a quarter million dollars each toward the new station and truck. The city wants to borrow $225,000 to cover its $250,000 share of the project. The proposed tax hike would fund the first round of debt payments on a 10-year loan. City officials reported that annual property taxes on a $100,000 home would increase by $43 under the proposed levy increase.
“The Fountain City Fire Association has been operating out of an outdated building with aging trucks for some time,” city officials wrote in an explanation of the project’s need. “It’s old. It’s extremely old, and the fire department has outgrown that building,” Mayor Bobbi Farrand said in an interview. “They have added storage space in every nook and cranny they possibly can, but the main reason is every time they want to order a new truck — and that’s not that often — they have to special order it.” Because of the building’s size, the fire department has to custom order smaller fire trucks that can fit inside. That is expensive and difficult, Farrand explained.
The new fire station would have other benefits, as well, Farrand continued. Currently, the fire department has had to turn down donations of snowmobiles, ATVs, and other equipment, because it simply does not have anywhere to put them, she stated. A new fire station would solve that problem. The proposed site of the new station — south of town, on Highway 35, at the former pool — would make it far easier for fire trucks to pull out of the station and respond to emergencies quickly, Farrand added.
Wisconsin law limits how much cities can raise property tax levies in one year without voter approval. The city needs voters to approve this referendum in order for the city to raise taxes as much as the loan payments would require — around a 17-percent levy increase.
City officials stated that if the referendum fails, they would try to find funding for the loan payments within the existing budget. That would require making cuts, Farrand stated. “We have a very small town, but we provide many, many services in our small town, and some of those services would have to go away,” she explained.
Farrand described paying an extra $43 per year in taxes on a $100,000 home as “not necessarily a lot of money.” She added, “I realize for a lot of families that could be a lot of money, but on the other hand, we do need fire protection. Without fire protection in this city, everyone’s homeowner’s insurance would skyrocket.” She continued, “We have to have a fire department, and we have to be a member of the fire department association [with neighboring townships]. If we were not a member of the fire department association, we would have a brand new fire station that would not serve us.”
The general election is on Tuesday, November 6. For information on voting and polling places, visit myvote.wi.gov or contact the local county, city, or town clerk.