A State Bar Board of Governors discussion about imposing a $30 dues increase starting in July raised concerns but ended with no action Friday, putting the measure on track for a vote in April.
The increase, if passed, is estimated to net the bar about $592,620 for fiscal year 2014-15 and help put the organization, which has had its share of financial troubles in the past few years, on firmer financial footing. It would be the first dues increase in nine years.
Full dues currently amount to $224 a year, but that goes up to $460 with mandatory court assessments.
A $30 increase, proponents say, is needed to balance the bar’s proposed $12,002,812 budget, which is about 1.2 percent more than the year prior. Without the dues increase, finance committee Chairman Nick Vivian said, the bar would be more than $500,000 short of its proposed needs for the next year and could be forced to dip into its reserve accounts, as it has in recent years.
The budget proposal calls for a four percent raise for bar staff members, as well as to hire two people for the bar’s continuing legal education programs and its practice management help division.
During Friday’s discussion, Vivian tried to convince the governors the budget should stand.
He said the bar isn’t able to dip into its reserves again, since it has used about $1 million from those accounts in the past six years.
“Many of us have opposed dues increases in the last several years,” Vivian said. “We just don’t have that money this year to fund out of the [reserves].”
Still, he acknowledged that the budget cuts little in the way of programming and doesn’t do much to stave off the need for a dues increase during the following year. However, he and other proponents pointed out that about $92,000 of the money that would be collected would go into investments to make the bar more financially sound for the future.
“I’d like to remind all of my fellow governors that it’s our fiduciary responsibility to keep this bar solvent,” BOG member Ray Dall’Osto said.
And while many of the governors agreed, calling the budget “modest,” several expressed concern that the dues would climb even higher in the future.
“Next year that will be the new floor,” BOG member Nick Zales said.
Others, such as BOG member Andrew Chevrez, bemoaned the lack of options the financial committee gave to the board for consideration. The proposed budget, he said, does not outline what would have to be cut if the BOG voted against a dues increase.
“There is never any mention of the hard part, and that is cutting member services,” Chevrez said. “As I analyze the information given to me, we are very heavily invested by our staff here. The programs are really driven by staff here. There is a significant component of the finances that include staff.”
Still, Vivian and others tried to warn against cuts, saying that it would come at the expense of staff. About 60 percent of the budget is comprised of staff salaries and benefits, Vivian said.
Rich Summerfield, another BOG member and Lee Turonie, who represents the bar’s Young Lawyers Division, said an increase would mean a lot to their constituents, since their groups are more likely to have lower incomes.
Summerfield, in particular, said he didn’t think it was fair to not even consider cutting other programs.
“I don’t think all the pain should be borne by the members themselves,” Summerfield said.
It is possible that several things can change between Friday and the April meeting, Vivian said. An audit report commissioned by the bar is expected soon, he said, and there is a possibility that some of the changes it recommends could be made for the next fiscal year.
Still, he said, it’s more likely that larger recommendations to become more fiscally sound would not be implemented until the next year.
The budget is expected to be presented, as is, and voted on during the BOG meeting April 25 and 26 in La Crosse.Follow @eheisigWLJ