No tax hike?

Published 4:08 pm Saturday, September 5, 2009

As the deadline for setting a property tax limit nears, Mower County officials are looking at somewhere between a 1 and 2 percent increase — though it’s a number they’d like to bring down by the end of the year.

On Tuesday, the county board will see a proposed levy and a number of proposed cuts to human services and other departments as part of 2010 budget planning.

Once the levy is set, commissioners can still decide to adjust the number — but after Sept. 15, they’d only be able to scale it down, according to state law.

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County coordinator Craig Oscarson said the goal is to get to a zero percent increase by the end of 2009.

To do that, the board would have to stomach a number of cuts, including to the Michael H. Seibel Visitation Center and the county’s Crisis Nursery — services that were spared last month.

If the board wants to work something back into the budget, the 1 to 2 percent tax increase would give them room to do so.

“It’s a safety net to add them back,” Oscarson said. “Our hope is still zero percent.”

Oscarson said tax increases and spending reductions are the best options for the county.

Alternatives — such as enacting employee furloughs or dipping into reserves — aren’t good long-term plans, he said.

“We’ve been told by the Legislature that the reduction is permanent,” Oscarson said about state aid. “It’s probably not the time for temporary solutions.”

What about a tax decrease?

While Mower County is shooting for a zero percent increase, another Minnesota county recently approved a tax levy that will actually go down.

Scott County, which is just south of the Twin Cities, will scale back their net property tax levy by 1.4 percent, from $55.8 million to $55 million.

County administrator Gary Shelton said he is proud of a budget that will give local residents a break in a rough economy, but he doesn’t know if a decrease would be a good fit elsewhere.

“Every county is different,” he said. “I don’t know (Mower County’s) finances. I don’t know where they’re positioned.”

A couple of factors went into the Scott County decrease.

Shelton said a big help was a voluntary move by county unions to rework their contracts — a step that will save $1.7 million.

The county will also dial back some construction projects to the tune of $1.2 million, with federal stimulus dollars helping in the area as well.

Shelton said the budget may not be as aggressive with new projects and growth as previously hoped, but noted that social services — such as parks and libraries — were not cut.

The county administrator gives credit to staff for working out a solid budget, but what will transpire next year is unclear.

“Can you do the same thing in 2011?” Shelton said. “Who knows.”

Oscarson said a decrease to taxes is possible locally but would impact future funding.

“You can’t have a freeze or reduction to taxes without an impact on taxes long term,” he said.