A normally routine public hearing on the city of Ripon’s 2022 budget was anything but ordinary last week Tuesday.
The 2022 budget sees the city’s tax rate fall from $8.73 to $8.53, which means a homeowner with property value of $100,000 would pay $853 in property taxes, $20 less than 2021.
The 2022 tax levy is slightly higher than 2021 as the city was able to raise the levy by $16,001 — or 0.491% — from net new construction, and by $11,129 from un-levied funds from previous budgets.
Last year’s tax levy was about $3.52 million, while this year’s proposed tax levy is roughly $3.54 million. The budget doesn’t cut any positions, while also planning for several road projects, multiple vehicle replacements and other capital improvements.
Despite the budget lowering the city’s tax rate without cutting services, Ripon resident Rob Wittchow wasn’t pleased.
He accused the city of hosting a “secret meeting” and not being transparent about the budget process, while taking issue with several line items.
However, the meeting was livestreamed on the city’s YouTube channel, and was cablecast live during the YouTube stream. The public hearing and the Common Council meeting that followed also will have multiple rebroadcasts on Spectrum 986.
The agenda was posted the Friday before the public hearing, but state statute only requires agendas to be posted 24 hours in advance of a meeting.
In addition, the budget had been discussed multiple times ahead of the public hearing. On Oct. 6, City Administrator Adam Sonntag gave a budget presentation to the Common Council that lasted about an hour and a half.
The budget also was a discussion item on every Common Council agenda prior to the public hearing, while the public hearing’s date and time was listed on the Common Council’s Oct. 25 meeting agenda.
For more than a decade, Ripon traditionally has hosted a public hearing on the budget 30 minutes before a regular council meeting in November, which is a fairly common practice in Wisconsin. In fact, the city of Green Lake did the same thing one day prior to Ripon’s public hearing.
Wittchow, however, took issue with the city hosting the public hearing 30 minutes before the regular Common Council meeting that night.
“The fact that this meeting is only 25 minutes and was only brought to the public’s attention on Friday is kind of suspect to me,” he said. “... I don’t feel there’s a lot of transparency going on here.”
After Wittchow’s allotted five-minute time frame for public comment, Ald. John Splitt asked why residents were limited to five minutes during the public hearing, which prompted the Common Council to give Wittchow another three minutes to speak.
Even after his extension, Wittchow continued interjecting himself as he argued with city officials until just before the Common Council had to vote on the budget.
He questioned why the budget for elections was increasing from 2021 to 2022 and why the city had a $100 line item for hotspots in the elections budget.
City Clerk Ann Schommer explained that there are double the elections in 2022 compared to 2021, and the hotspot is used to transmit election results to Fond du Lac County, a practice the city has used since 2016.
She added that Fond du Lac County is responsible for cybersecurity of the hotspot used for elections.
Wittchow also questioned the city’s budgeting of $350,000 for developer incentives, despite it being previously reported that the redevelopment of the American House into a condo complex would be eligible to receive those funds upon the developer providing proof of $1 million in project expenditures.
The regular interjections escalated to the point of Mayor Ted Grant threatening to have Wittchow removed from the meeting as the Common Council was unable to have a constructive conversation about the budget.
Even so, Alds. Howard Hansen and Dave Gallops emphasized that officials are always available to answer questions about the budget or any other city business.
“Any citizen can come to us at any time,” Gallops said. “I get asked all kinds of questions, and then, wherever I need to go, I’ll find the answers and get them to you.
“It’s counterproductive to come here and ask one question after another. … Any citizen, feel free to contact me and I will get you the information you’re requesting.”
Despite the interjections, the Common Council unanimously approved the 2022 budget. However, the interruptions took up so much time during the meeting that officials never had a chance to provide a substantial summary of the budget.
What’s actually in the budget?
In terms of the decreased tax rate from 2021 to 2022, Sonntag said last week Wednesday that most city residents will see their tax bill from the city decrease — unless their property value increased by more than the levy’s decrease.
The 2022 budget also increases the amount of money the city is using to service its debt, which offsets the $200,000 tax levy reduction from transferring the city’s dispatch center to Fond du Lac County.
In past budgets, Sonntag said the city had only been levying about $260,000 for debt service payments, but total debt payments in the 2022 budget equate to $791,000 with interest, with $459,000 coming from the tax levy.
The city administrator noted that levying more money for debt service helps to keep the tax rate stable, while funding other priorities in the general fund and better funding for debt payments.
“We’re still not levying the full amount of our debt payments,” Sonntag said. “That’s a bit of a problem. For future years, we’ll have to continue to manage and look at that because we continue to borrow, and we want to make sure we aren’t increasing taxes too much.”
Total revenue the city will receive from the state of Wisconsin in 2022 will increase. General state shared revenues declined by 1.38% from 2021, after also declining from 2020 to 2021. The city also will receive about 5% more in transportation aid as the state increased transportation aid in its biennial budget.
Sonntag said transportation aid is tied to the amount of money the city spends on road projects, meaning the more the city spends, the more aid it receives.
That’s why the city administrator plans to look for additional grant opportunities from the state.
“We’re trying to apply for grants to spend more money to then gain more money in the future in transportation aid as our transportation-related expenses increase,” Sonntag said. “In this particular budget, related to transportation and infrastructure, we did allocate a significant amount of money for capital improvements to road projects, as well as to sidewalk improvements.”
He added that the city doubled its budget for sidewalk improvements with a focus on crack filling.
In terms of road projects, the 2022 budget includes $200,000 for South Douglas Street reconstruction and $250,000 for St. Wenceslaus Street reconstruction.
Sonntag said the city is working with Ripon College and the Ripon Area School District on the St. Wenceslaus Street project as it is connected to Ingalls Field.
He added that the city is planning to apply for a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to help fund the St. Wenceslaus Street reconstruction.
“We have had some failing infrastructure there and we need to do water,” Sonntag said. “In terms of safety, there was an accident up there around Homecoming. So, we have identified that as a project that we can do in a collaborative effort with other community institutions, and it makes sense for us to apply for a grant.”
For the Douglas Street project, the city is working with the town of Ripon to identify what its needs are, Sonntag noted. He said the city is looking at potentially adding water and sewer utilities further down Douglas Street.
The city administrator noted the project is within a Tax Increment Finance (TIF) District, so the city could use TIF dollars for the project, along with potential grant dollars.
He added that the city is trying to get more creative in funding infrastructure projects and working to be more aggressive in applying for grants to offset costs to local taxpayers.
If the city doesn’t get awarded grants for a certain project, Sonntag said it will reevaluate and look to pivot to other infrastructure projects within budget.
“That means less reconstruction, and getting surfaces done in areas with utilities that are not an issue, or where there’s no curb and gutter,” the city administrator said. “We’ll reevaluate all that, if we do not get the grants.”
Other capital projects in the budget include $350,000 for the Murray Park Senior Center/Trailhead project and $125,000 for City Hall HVAC controls.
For the Senior Center project, Sonntag said the city will apply for a more than $1 million neighborhood investment grant with the Department of Administration (DOA) to help complete project funding. Funds for the DOA grant program come from the American Rescue Plan Act.
If the city receives the DOA grant, it can use the $350,000 budgeted for the Senior Center project on something else, he added.
Vehicles & employees
In terms of vehicle replacement, the city budgeted $60,000 for two F150 truck replacements and then $36,000 for a squad car in 2022.
Through a new leasing program, Sonntag said the city will use those funds for vehicles to be leased.
He explained that the line items in the budget weren’t changed to reflect the lease program as that $96,000 will be applied to the general fund with additional funds for vehicle replacement coming from the utility funds.
The city already has ordered 12 F150s and three squad cars through the leasing program, which enables the city to resell the leased vehicles after a specified time period, Sonntag noted.
Through the program, all of the vehicle maintenance the city used to do in-house will be farmed out as “local vendors will have the opportunity to work on the majority of the fleet,” the city administrator added.
“We will do business with any local vendor that has competitive pricing,” Sonntag said. “We’ll buy the vehicles wherever we can get them because, at this point, just getting vehicles is difficult.”
The city also will utilize a new insurance plan with its current provider, after costs with its current plan had gone up by 50%, when the city only planned for a 10% increase, Sonntag noted.
Because employees will pay more for health insurance under the new plan, the Common Council last month approved giving all employees a 3% wage increase and matching employee insurance contributions between union and nonunion workers.
Sonntag said the severe weather event on July 29 showed how valuable the city’s employees are, regardless of department.
He added that it was more fair to give all employees the same wage increase.
“The 3% [wage increase] also makes sense as we try to find people to work for us, and as people retire, or leave the organization,” he said. “Being able to offer a more attractive wage and a comprehensive benefits package is important, because we need hard-working people to apply.”
He added that the city is facing a tight labor market and has struggled to get applications for higher-paying management positions.
One of those positions is the finance manager/assistant city administrator position. Sonntag explained that the city’s former finance manager left the organization, so the city has been using a temporary finance manager, who is working remotely.
The assistant city administrator title was added to the job posting to make the position more attractive to prospective applicants as the finance manager works closely with the city administrator, Sonntag explained.
Beyond the nuts and bolts of the budget, Sonntag said the city will work to better utilize its TIF districts for additional projects that develop as it needs to increase its net new construction in order to raise its tax levy.
“Net new construction means your community is growing, and you’re able to adjust your tax levy and increase your budget,” he said. “If you’re not growing, you can’t do that, so you face uncertainty as costs go up. It’s important to get back to long-term planning and being able to capitalize on development.”
He added that the city may conduct studies to identify ways to meet needs in the community, whether it be housing or economic development, and its aim would be to increase net new construction to address those needs.
“A lot of these things take time,” Sonntag said. “It doesn’t happen overnight, but we have to start addressing some of these things in our long-range planning.”