Board right to approve debt limit increase

THINK OF HOW MUCH more you pay for most things today than you did in 2001.

It may be just a few pennies, or a few dollars, or much more, but the majority of things cost more today than they did a decade and a half ago.

According to the Consumer Price Index, it’s about 34 percent more.

Those increases impact the things that the average person buys, but they also impact the things that local governments buy.

That’s why the County Board took action last week to increase its annual capital borrowing limitation from $4 million to $5.5 million.

The $4 million cap was imposed by the board in 2001 and has played a large role in helping the county manage its budget and, more importantly, the property tax levy and tax rate.

Indeed, those are some of the things that have not kept pace with the rate of inflation over that period and that taxpayers are either paying less for or the increase has been well below the rate of inflation.

But county government still has to provide a wide array of services to its constituents, from law enforcement to highways to social services and much, much more.

The cost of providing those services, and purchasing the materials necessary to perform them, have in many cases kept pace with inflation and in some cases even exceeded that.

Maintaining that balance of providing services while controlling spending has been challenging, but fortunately for taxpayers the County Board and county employees have proven to be up to the task.

Borrowing for big-ticket, long-term items and projects is one way the county and all governments meet those challenges. Indeed, it’s the way most of us do it in our own lives – most of us can’t afford to pay cash for big-ticket items like cars, homes, home improvements and the like, so we borrow amounts we can afford at repayment rates we can manage.

That’s prudent, and that’s the kind of prudence the county has shown over the past 15 years.

But a $4 million limit on annual borrowing will no longer work for the county as it did in 2001. As Supervisor George Marthenze noted in the debate over increasing the limit, $4 million from 2001 isn’t $4 million today.

No, it isn’t. Adjusted for the CPI, that $4 million in 2001 is more like $5.38 million in 2015 – and will be more in the coming years.

That’s why the board was wise to bump the limit up to $5.5 million in the face of needed upcoming big-ticket projects, such as the overdue Highway Department consolidation in new headquarters facilities in the town of Plymouth.

It won’t be easy for the county to maintain its fiscal balance with the higher debt limit, but county officials have wisely planned for it and should be able to absorb the impact without breaking their budget.

The move came with a warning from Finance Committee Chairman Greg Weggeman that the county may need to find new solutions for its fiscal needs and budget constraints in the future, but that’s a challenge the county has met in the past and should be able to as it moves forward.


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