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Land vs. roads: Budget battle grows

Paul Snyder
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Dane County supervisors are sparring with the executive’s office over expenses for roadwork and land acquisition more than a month before the 2010 budget is due for review.

“Our ability to get new money is already very limited,” said Jack Martz, a member of the county’s Board of Supervisors. “So the money we do get has to be prioritized, and we have to protect our basic services. Like it or not, roads are a necessity.”

But Topf Wells, Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk’s chief of staff, said roads, like many other programs and services, likely will get less money in the upcoming budget.

“If we can get projects online as we continue to get stimulus money, we can deal with project flowage,” he said. “I think we’ll still see a big slug of projects through the stimulus program, but you may see a loss of activity when it comes to county-funded work.”

The news is no surprise, Wells said, given state and municipal budget problems. On Friday, Falk sent a letter to supervisors letting them know the county cannot maintain basic public safety and services without raising Dane County’s tax levy by 1.19 percent.

Falk is scheduled to present the capital and operating budgets to the board Oct. 1, and Wells said many projects and programs will be difficult to sustain in 2010.

If that’s the case, Martz said, the county should putting land purchases for biking and hiking trails on hold for a year.

This month, the County Board’s budget committee denied a request to spend more than $500,000 on a 59-acre property in Cottage Grove. Last month, supervisors voted against spending $3.2 million for land in Cross Plains that could have become part of the state’s Ice Age Trail.

“If we have to pay these purchases back over 20 years, we’re looking at about $73,000 in principal and interest for every $1 million we put up,” Martz said. “Where does that money come from? The operating budget. So programs that were supposed to continue are now unfunded by $73,000.”

Wells questioned a limit on the purchase of land, saying it prevents the county from saving natural areas from development. He also said county committees might have voted without considering all the necessary factors.

The county, for instance, had $2.3 million in federal and state grants for the potential Ice Age Trail land in Cross Plains.

Yett Martz stressed that financial times are tight. And should cut costs where it can.

“Housing and land values are good right now,” he said, “but I still don’t see a lot of people mortgaging their futures to buy them.”

Melanie Hampton, a county supervisor and member of Madison’s Long Range Transportation Planning Committee, said maintaining roads is more important than buying land.

“I think you just need to look at the condition of something like county Highway M to realize how badly we need to keep infrastructure in good condition,” she said. “These are the tough decisions you have to make in this position. You don’t go into it thinking it’s going to be happy and wonderful all the time.”

But Wells said unless road and building projects can provide fast, dramatic paybacks for the county budget, those projects likely will get close scrutiny.

“This,” he said, “is going to be a gruesome budget.”

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