By Emily Bialkowski
Houston County resident Chuck Schulte wasted no time with the county board Oct. 16 when he pressed them to lower taxes.
He asked the board to reduce the tax burden by five percent each year for the next three years in an effort to offer relief to what he described as overburdened taxpayers.
“Even with this plan, it would not bring you back to 2010 budget numbers,” Schulte said, adding that the budget has increased in Houston County by more than $4.5 million since then.
Schulte presented various statistics to aid his argument that tax relief is needed, such as the average income in Houston County is 17 percent below the state average.
But Commissioner Jack Miller pressed Schulte for solutions saying many services/items are mandated or already stripped bare.
“The new justice center represents 26 percent of our budget. That’s not going to go away. It’s a fixed expense whether it was good idea to build or not. That impact has to factor into what we can do and what we can’t,” Miller said.
Schulte’s response was, “We sure dug ourselves a hole.”
But, in an effort to remain productive, he added, “The reason I bring all this up is where are we going with this when one out of 3.129 people in Brownsville lives in poverty; when one out of every 6.21 lives in poverty in Caledonia.”
Commissioner Teresa Walter said county money is needed to help such people.
“We have been holding our budget to what is really needed and mandated,” Walter said.
Schulte continued to press them on items such as employee pay increases and squad cars.
Schulte estimated the average compensation package for a county employee totals almost $60,000 based on 157 employees.
“You have a lot of good employees in the county, but I want to know where I can go in Eitzen, Spring Grove or Caledonia to get a job with that kind of package. There’s only one place in this county you can get a job: It’s right here. You can’t keep raising pay packages when people behind you are asking for more assistance,” Schulte said.
The dialogue was poignant and addressed what might be described as worries for Houston County.
“Every time I come to Caledonia in the morning I meet 100 or more cars going the other way. My goal is to keep taxes reasonable in this county so we don’t lose citizens to Onalaska, West Salem, wherever. But, at this point, we can’t just stop providing mandated services. A rock in a hard place would be the best analogy I can make,” Miller said, adding that the collective bargaining process with county employees makes it tough to apply standard business practices.
Commissioner Tom Bjerke agreed with Miller, saying, “We’re looking at every place we can cut but we’re at the point where we asked ourselves which one do you want us to cut – human services, roads?”
“Start with sheriff’s department,” Schulte said.
Bjerke pressed him further asking him for specifics, and when Schulte said don’t buy high priced race cars Bjerke said, “That’s $30,000. OK, what else? Don’t you think that’s what we do?”
Schulte continued with mention of the highway department shop and its deterioration and how the county can’t afford to build another multi-million dollar structure.
Although at times a little defensive of their work to reduce the county’s bottom line, almost every single commissioner agreed that Schulte was bringing up legitimate points. They thanked him for his willingness to participate in the process and encouraged him to speak one-on-one with them if he wanted more details or had suggestions for solving the wretched dynamic between taxes and funding important programs.
“No one sitting here is saying, ‘Yeah, we can just tax some more.’ We need citizens like you involved,” Miller said.
Contact Emily Bialkowski at [email protected]