First vote to pay drug-abuse costs loses

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DRUG addiction and abuse costs - largely methamphetamine - has decimated the operating budgets of the Ashland County sheriff, district attorney, clerk of courts and Health and Human Services Department. So county officials last week asked residents to raise their property taxes by $1 million a year to help pay soaring drug-abuse costs.

They asked voters to approve a referendum that would have raised property taxes on a home or business valued at $100,000 by $83 per year for five years.

Ashland County voters said no, by almost a two-to-one margin.

THE vote is significant, because Ashland County was the first in Wisconsin to ask residents to raise their property taxes to deal with the epidemic of drug abuse.

But more counties will be holding referendums to deal with soaring addiction, treatment, foster care and prosecution costs, predicted Mark O'Connell, executive director of the Wisconsin Counties Association.

Statistics suggest some reasons why the Ashland County referendum failed: The median household income in Ashland County is $40,297 - 31% lower than the statewide average. Incomes of about 15% of its residents are below the poverty guideline. The average age of its residents is 41; the statewide average is 37.

Ashland County Administrator Jeff Beirl said the push to pass the referendum was a "major uphill battle," since it came after the Ashland School District passed a $34-million construction referendum that raised property taxes on more than half of all county residents.

"Voters rejected the referendum because they feel the property taxes they pay now are a burden," Beirl added. "When a lot of people are on a fixed income - the elderly - or working for $10-$16/hour paying their annual property tax bill is a burden on their budget and they felt an increase now was unacceptable."

TO make their case, Ashland County officials listed these specific additional drug addiction and abuse costs faced by county government:

• State law requires that methamphetamine cases be prosecuted as felonies. The Ashland District Attorney's Office prosecuted 303 felony cases in 2017, and one in five of them were meth cases. In 2011, only nine of the 122 felony cases prosecuted involved meth.

Announcing new help for local law officers who must clean up toxic meth labs this month, Attorney General Brad Schimel said, "Meth use and production is threatening our state, and draining law enforcement's resources."

An FBI report estimated that, between 2011 and 2015, methamphetamine use in Wisconsin likely expanded between 250% and 300%, Schimel added.

• Ashland County's Health and Human Services Department scrambled to find care for 379 children in 2017, at a cost of $720,909. In 2014, the agency cared for 282 children at a cost of $323,728.

• The Ashland County jail is licensed to care for 67 inmates, but 1,183 inmates were booked into it last year. That crush raised inmates' health care, transport and other costs. In 2016 alone, the budget for the Sheriff's Department and jail was overspent by $331,845.

SPENDING controls imposed by past governors and legislators mean that trying to pass a referendum "is the only option" local governments have to increase their property tax levy, Beirl said.

O'Connell said passage of the Ashland School District referendum "put a lot of pressure" on county officials asking voters to approve another property tax increase. "I'm not surprised that it went down."

County officials across Wisconsin reeling from soaring drug-abuse costs "don't have a romantic issue like the [high school] football team," O'Connell said.

Instead, county officials will be asking residents to raise their property taxes for services most of them won't use and "hope" they or a family member never have to use, O'Connell noted. Counties deal with "quality of life" issues, he added.

Even if the Legislature eased levy limits to allow counties to raise more cash to respond to drug-abuse issues, a larger issue is looming, O'Connell said: "The property tax is not sustainable as a long-term source of revenue for local governments."

SINCE the referendum failed, Ashland County has no choice but consider some painful fiscal choices, Beirl said.

"All county revenues and expenses will be reviewed. Where we can, fees for services will be increased and expenses will be cut," Beirl added. "Right now, it is too early in the budget process to identify specific cuts to specific services."

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com

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