It’s been seven months since Gov. Scott Walker signed the controversial Budget Bill to close a $3 billion deficit over the next two years in Wisconsin.
Municipalities took one of the biggest hits—$96 million in cuts from state aid—and that meant the men and women who run local government were faced with some of the most difficult decisions of their careers, as they scrambled to balance their budgets for 2012.
“It's created a great deal of consternation in terms of how we have to remold what local government needs to be," Stevens Point Mayor Andrew Halverson said.
Stevens Point was looking at a $600,000 hole. Part of that was offset by the new requirement that public employees must now contribute to their retirement.
"The difficult part, unfortunately, with the Governor's budget is that members of protective services units, the firefighters and police officers, were exempted from paying for their portion of the Wis. Retirement System," Halverson said,
The budget also called for a cap on tax levy increases, so cities had to find other ways to bring in revenue this year.
"We looked at some capital projects and deferred them,” Wausau Mayor Jim Tipple said. “And that's not always a good thing when working with a zero-based budget, which we did."
Tipple says departments were trimmed down to the bare bones this budget cycle, including eliminating 1.5 positions.
"If you add up all the numbers, we came up with the $1.3 million, which was the number needed to balance our budget."
In Weston, public transportation took the biggest hit—more than $105,000. Despite much protest from riders and supporters, the Village Board voted to discontinue their only bus line, Route K, because members said it was not cost-effective.
"It was very difficult,” Village President Fred Schuster said. “$450,000 is a big deficit to make up.”
Back in Stevens Point, the public works department has lost two positions. That means there are two fewer people to plow or repair the roads.
"We have to be able to do the best we can with the cards we're dealt,” Halverson said. “And ultimately, the dollars that are available to us. The last thing we want to do is sacrifice public safety, sacrifice investments into our roads."
Halverson, Tipple and Schuster said balancing their budgets was done in a way that would lead to as little effect on the average taxpayer as possible, but at the same time would give local government a more sustainable model for the future.
"I think change is sometimes unnerving, but it's really necessary because we had a crisis at the state level and that kind of cascaded down to the local level," Tipple said.
Looking ahead, though, they know this is not the end for cuts in state aid.
"I don't know where we're going to be based on the cuts we receive [for 2013]", Schuster said.
If another round of reductions hits local government, elected officials are worried it will be much more than one bus route or one road that suffers in 2013.
"That might mean a pool needs to be closed,” Halverson said. “We may see reductions in the fire department or in the police department.”
Leaders say they are already planning ways to make those reductions easier to manage next year, and will begin meeting this spring to discuss 2013’s budget, instead of waiting until November when the budget is due.