Brown County 2023 budget would prioritize fight against drugs, focus on youth reading, help veterans claim burn-pit illness

GREEN BAY - Brown County's top elected official is proposing a 2023 budget that places extra emphasis on keeping children off drugs and out of prison, partly through better role models and reading skills.

Those initiatives would come at little to no additional cost to property taxpayers, according to County Executive Troy Streckenbach, who has proposed a budget for 2023 that will increase spending but cut the county's portion of property taxes.

A key part of Streckenbach's proposal calls on county adults to break a cycle of young people going to prison early, sometimes as teens. It asks that adults invest time and volunteer hours to mentor, be role models, and help kids avoid academic problems — and the risk of ending up in the legal system.

RELATED: Brown County's 2022 spending proposal: Six things to know, from taxes to a new 'housing navigator'

RELATED: Joined by a mom who lost her son at 27, Brown County officials announce 2022 plan to fight 'scourge' of fentanyl

Another element in the executive's budget tasks Brown County Public Library system leaders with helping to boost children's reading scores. Streckenbach noted that just 27% of the county's third-graders achieved reading proficiency on state tests in the 2020-2021 school year, a sharp decline from prior to the pandemic.

Reading scores rebounded somewhat in tests taken last spring but a long-term decline continues.

Brown County Public Library Director Sarah Sugden said her staff will focus efforts on programs designed to bolster youths reading scores. The effort could be something as simple as improving story-hour programming, so long as the program is likely to have a positive effect on reading scores.

"We're going to be working to better our (community's) future — for our children, and our children's children," said Sugden, who attended a kickoff event on Wednesday. "My goal for now is that, decades from now, a child born in Brown County will have the (reading skills) he needs to achieve whatever he wants to achieve."

The county library system will place a special emphasis on areas in which children's reading progress can be derailed, citing areas from summer recess to the inability to get to the library because a family has limited transportation.

In an interview before he made his proposal public, Streckenbach continued to link much of future county growth to its children's academic success — specifically, reading skills.

A third county initiative would add "action steps" to a proposal made this summer: Streckenbach's declaration that "the presence and potency" of fentanyl in the community threatens youths because it's so easy to become hooked and can kill someone the first time they try the drug.

Federal figures for the 12 months ended in October 2021 cite 105,000 Americans killed by drug overdoses — roughly Green Bay's population — and two-thirds of those deaths have been linked to fentanyl and similar synthetic opioids. Brown County's figures on drug overdose deaths for 2020, the most-recent year available, say 35 of 48 such deaths were fentanyl-related.

More: Drug overdose deaths increased in Wisconsin during the COVID-19 pandemic. These northeast counties were among the worst hit.

More: Surge in fentanyl supply and overdose deaths prompts state health department to issue public advisory

Two items promote health, safety

» Streckenbach is calling for the county to make child-support services safer and easier to get and to better serve domestic-violence survivors.

» The county plans to reopen veterans claims for burn-pit illnesses now that the U.S. military has added them to its list of illnesses related to Middle East service, as well as Agent Orange conditions and other claims previously denied to vets.

Budget shrinks 2023 property-tax rate

The proposed budget includes the fourth-lowest rate on record, $3.31 per $1,000 of property value. Streckenbach says that will mean “$81 back in your pocket” for an owner of a home assessed at $200,000. Final numbers will be set when the Brown County Board adopts a budget the first Wednesday in November.

Streckenbach's proposal calls for the county to spend $353 million in 2023, a 13.2% increase from the 2022 plan. The amount raised by taxes, however, will remain steady at $92.4 million as the county sees increased revenue from sales taxes and federal stimulus money.

More than 20 County Board members voted last summer to extend the county's half-percent sales tax into 2037 — long past the planned end date for that tax on retail purchases. This budget will pay down another $8 million in debt, leaving the total remaining debt at slightly less than $50 million.

More: Brown County Board votes 22-4 to extend 0.5% sales tax into 2037 to pay off debt

"Since 2017," Streckenbach said, "Brown County has paid off more than $82 million in debt."

Innovation and development initiative would continue to be a focus as the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the county will share the cost of a position to spur entrepreneurship and job creation at the university and across the region.

Also, in response to "significant interest in local foods and food systems," the county will establish a seed library, boost its community garden numbers and conduct more programs about growing food.

Contact Doug Schneider at (920) 431-8333, or Follow him on Twitter at @PGDougSchneider.

This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Brown County leader proposes tax cut, fentanyl fight, reading priority