County COVID-19 Expenses Are Rising
Already in the millions. County may need to levy property taxes above the state-imposed limit.
On April 7, County Executive Chris Abele signed a resolution from the Milwaukee County Board transferring $1 million from a contingency account for costs associated with the county’s response to the pandemic. Any money spent beyond that $1 million will be pulled from the budgets of various county departments and potentially paid for through an increase in the property tax levy.
Though, Joe Lamers, director of the Milwaukee County Office of Performance, Strategy and Budget told the county board that the administration will be coming forward in May with a request of “at least a million, possibly more than that, based on the costs that are coming in.”
The contingency account is for appropriations that are not allocated to a specific county department. Lamers and outgoing chair of the board’s Finance and Audit Committee, Sup. James “Luigi” Schmitt, agreed it was a sensible place to pull emergency funding from given the county’s limited revenue sources. The account is currently at around $3 million, Lamers said. “Potentially the whole contingency might be needed for this.”
The county has a large workforce. In order to keep the government functioning and employees safe, the county purchased approximately half a million dollars worth of laptops to set employees up to work from home.
The next biggest expense was personal protective equipment. The county used approximately $352,500 worth of the funds to purchase PPE, which the county, like every other institution in the country, is short on. It’s an area of expense that will continue to escalate, Lamers said. Currently, the county is “looking to make orders to get protective equipment on a daily basis,” Lamers noted.
Other expenses include nearly $100,000 for housing and homeless support services, $17,000 for GPS monitors for inmates being released on supervision, $40,000 to increase capacity at 211 Impact and $18,000 in consulting for the Office of Emergency Management.
The county also spent $55,000 on communications and media. If you’ve seen ads or billboards around town that say Stay Home, Save Lives MKE, that’s from the county.
The county has also spent $65,000 on a grant specialist to help it apply for state and federal grants that may backfill the increase in expenses and loss in revenue the county is seeing from the pandemic. Current projections show the county’s budget deficit could nearly double in 2021 because of the pandemic’s effect on the economy. In light of that, Lamers said, the budget specialist will help “make sure we’re capturing every dollar.”
The resolution transferring funds from the contingency account also included language that stated the county may increase the property tax levy above statutory limits to cover any unreimbursed costs related to the pandemic.
Under the emergency declaration issued by Governor Tony Evers the county, in consultation with the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, can pay for unreimbursed costs from the emergency with the property tax levy, Milwaukee County Corporation Counsel Margaret Daun told Urban Milwaukee. So, in the fall, the new Milwaukee County Board may be calling a vote on the tax levy for 2021 that exceeds even the statutory limit.
Much of the costs associated with the pandemic will be reimbursed by FEMA or through the stimulus package called the CARES Act, Lamers said. But not everything will be covered. For example, it’s not likely that the half a million spent on laptops will be reimbursed, he said.
Until the federal money arrives any added costs caused by the pandemic will be paid for by the tax levy. “For now that’s how they’re being paid until we do get the reimbursement,” Lamers said.
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