The Daily Globe - Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

County board votes to take out loan for court-ordered placements



Hurley — With costs skyrocketing the last few years, the Iron County Board of Supervisors voted 13-1 Tuesday to begin taking out loans to cover the expense of court-ordered placements, a move that will pass at least a portion of the burden to the county’s taxpayers.

The court-ordered placements occur for a variety of reasons, but generally deal with drug and alcohol offenses and can include defendants being sentenced to treatment facilities rather than prison.

Supervisor John Sendra was the lone no vote. Larry Youngs was absent from the meeting.

The county will use the actual cost from the previous year to determine how much money to take out for the current year, according to Clerk Michael Saari, with the board approving a $844,741 loan from Chippewa Valley Bank this year.

This reflects the $507,343 and $337,397 spent in 2016 on adult and child placements, respectively.

With the $844,741 loan and a total levy cap at approximately $4.4 million for the entire county budget, county officials expect roughly $5.2 million will be levied in taxes. The exact amount an individual taxpayer will pay depends on which town they live in.

While many of the board members weren’t happy with the need to take out the loan, the court-ordered nature of the placement largely ties the county’s hands.

“(The loan) will be quite an increase from a $4.4 million (levy), that’s close to 20 percent,” Saari said. “But I don’t see any other options — this is going to bankrupt us. This will bankrupt Iron County.”

Following the meeting, Saari explained the county was already at the levy cap set by the state — which is why the county can’t simply use tax money to pay the placement costs. He said state laws allow loans to be applied over the levy cap, with the funds from the loan then being used to cover the costs.

The county had been using general fund money from stumpage revenue to cover the county’s expenditures above the levy cap, however, the stumpage revenue simply can no longer keep pace with the placement costs.

“Our stumpage can only cover so much of this,” Saari said during the meeting. “And it’s just out of hand.”

The county’s general fund covered roughly $700,000 in costs last year, Saari said.

He said the county spent $200,000 to $300,000 in placement costs each year when he started as clerk, but the expenditures have exploded in the last couple years.

Some board members felt showing the taxpayers the costs and having them voice their complaints to the state was a necessary step to getting financial assistance.

“That’s how you progress legislation,” Scott Erickson said, regarding voter anger.

“When this shows up and some people realize how much we’re spending on it, there’s going to be the grass roots (effort). People are going to be furious and it rolls up to the state,” Ken Saari said.

While the board approved borrowing the $844,741; the number will likely increase next year as the county has already spent over $600,000 in the first half of 2017 and could exceed $1 million in placement costs, according to county officials.

“I have talked to Human Services and it is getting progressively worse by the month,” Michael Saari said. “This is not slowing down, it’s getting worse every month they said.”

With no reimbursements available from the state or federal government, Iron County isn’t alone in bearing the burden of these costs. One of the facilities Iron County has sent patients to is a newly built $27-million facility in Trempealeau County employing 350 county employees, Saari said. In talking with officials down there, he said all but four counties in the state have patients in the facility — and this is just one of about six or seven facilities Iron County sends people to, illustrating the true scope of the problem.

“I truly believe this is going to become a state issue very, very soon,” Saari said. “Because if Iron County only has 5,900 people, how about big counties? How many people do they have stuck in these facilities? I think the state is going to have to get involved.”

While the taxpayers will be footing the bill until something changes, Saari did note the bond costs for the retirement fund and courthouse expansion would be ending in the next two to four years — somewhat reducing the impact of the tax increase.

County Board Chair Joe Pinardi said the county also continues to explore the possibility of opening a facility in Iron County, which would not only reduce the county’s costs but generate revenue from other counties placing patients in the facility.

“We’ll build it, and they will come,” Bill Thomas wryly said.

The county will be charged an interest rate of 2.95 percent on the loan, according to information presented at the meeting.

In other action:

—The board approved an ordinance change lowering the speed limit on County J in Mercer to 25 mph between U.S. 51 and County H.

—It was reported the suggested donation for meals at the Hurley Senior Center was reduced back to $4.


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