County officials satisfied with TNT hearing

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 7, 2002

The day after Mower County's Truth In Taxation hearing, Craig Oscarson was satisfied.

"I think the TNT hearing went pretty good," Oscarson said. "There was a good mix of positive and negative comments that allowed everyone to hear both sides of the issue."

The Mower County Board of Commissioners moved its annual TNT hearing from their meeting room in the government center to Ellis Middle School's auditorium. That was done in anticipation of a large crowd much like the 2002 TNT hearing when an overflow audience filled the commissioners meeting room.

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The county's $36 million fund balance, also called "reserves," has sparked controversy in recent years. Despite having the large amount of money -- Mower County ranks one of the highest among Minnesota's 87 counties, when measuring reserves -- the county commissioners maintain they are deficit spending and must also levy property taxes to provide all the budgeted programs and services. Taxpayers -- particularly those in the city of Austin and largely Austin city officials and business-owners who belong to the Austin Area Chamber of Commerce -- have not accepted the commissioners' explanation.

When the commissioners proposed a $34,375,312 budget and a property tax levy of $8,130,800 for 2003, it sounded like "more of the same" to critics.

The county board retained the services of LAWCO accountant Darwin Viker to examine county finances. It cost the county $7,842 and shed some light on the situation, but otherwise whetted the appetite of critics for more information.

Then, the State Auditor's Office finished its audit of county finances and billed the county $4,000 for its services. Again, the information seemed to confirm the worst suspicions of critics.

Only two weeks ago, Oscarson, who serves on the county board's budget committee and is financial counsel to the commissioners, was a special guest at the Austin Area Chamber of Commerce's governmental affairs committee meeting. Oscarson described the confrontation as "heated," but also said it amounted to a "healthy" exchange of information.

Then came last Thursday night's county TNT hearing.

David Hillier, 3rd District county commissioner and chairman of the county board a year ago when outraged citizens stormed the TNT hearing, was silent at this year's session. He was also satisfied. He also said the proposed budget "shows how we are using our reserves for tax relief."

He said property taxes are less today than they were as far back as1996. Pointing to the handout provided citizens at the TNT hearing, Hillier showed the figures: a net levy of $8,246,164 in 1996, $8,423,287 in 1997, $8,674,504 and $8,330,763 in 1999.

The proposed levy for 2003 is $8,130,800.

What does Oscarson believe the TNT hearing suggests?

"It appears people think the county is moving in the right direction," he said.

The next test of the Mower County Board's fund balance strategy takes place Tuesday, Dec. 17, when the commissioners hold a public hearing, beginning 10 a.m. to consider adopting the proposed 2003 budget and property tax levy.

Lee Bonorden can be reached at 434-2232 or by e-mail at