County looks to cut services

Published 8:19 am Friday, December 10, 2010

Taxpayers can’t have their cake and eat it too.

With the public urging the county board to stop raising taxes, county officials said people must get used to reduced services.

The county board of commissioners hosted its annual truth in taxation hearing Thursday night to hear the public’s view on a proposed 3 percent tax increase that would set the county levy at about $15.5 million next year. The board will set the final levy increase and budget at its meeting Dec. 21.

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With the public voicing concerns about taxes becoming more of a burden, the county is moving in the direction of easing costs through staff reductions, a change that will soon mean fewer deputies and slower snow plow services.

“We’re seeing a service reduction already,” said County Coordinator Craig Oscarson.

The county outlined a number of steps to reduce staff through attrition. The public can expect it to take about 15 percent longer for roads to be plowed after a snowstorm, as the county board is recommending two highway department positions be reduced.

“The era of immediate service is not going to be there,” Oscarson said after the meeting.

The sheriff’s department will likely have one less deputy in 2011, as a retirement is expected at the end of this year. The move isn’t expected to affect public safety because the county will no longer be devoting staff time to transporting boarded inmates after the new jail opens. Deputies will still transport inmates to state prisons and similar facilities.

The county is already short staffed in many departments like Human Services and Environmental Services. To adjust to low staff numbers, Human Services will close its public window two partial days each week.

According to Environmental Services Director Angie Knish, her office will occasionally have to close and post a sign on the door.

Without revenue increases, taxpayers are going to have to endure the occasional wait at county offices. However, Oscarson said he hasn’t seen significant issues yet, and the public has adjusted.

“If that’s what they want, don’t complain when you don’t get called back right away,” Oscarson said.

County Board Chairman Ray Tucker noted that it’s difficult to provide services without funding.

“We haven’t been enhancing services,” Tucker said. “We’ve been trying to maintain.”

“It takes money to make everything go forward,” he added.

Most staff reductions will happen gradually through attrition rather than layoffs because the county has to pay unemployment if an employee is let go. It takes time before the county actually sees the cost change of a layoff. Such staffing changes, Oscarson said, will be more reflected in the 2012 budget.

While many other departments are seeing reductions, the board will soon be paying an additional employee in the county attorney’s office. An employee is currently on staff now but is being paid through a grant. When that grant expires, the county plans to gradually take on the salary due to the high case load in the office.

‘I hope it’s a mistake’

Many farmers are likely to see the biggest burden of property taxes this year, as Tucker noted agricultural land is currently valued as high as it’s ever been.

County resident Jim Hartson urged the county board to stop raising taxes, and said landowners — especially farmers — can’t keep pulling the tax weight.

“How much is enough?” he said.

Oscarson noted that freezing taxes would mean reduction to services.

“This board needs input on where you’re willing to live with less,” he said.

Other citizens expressed their concern about dramatic increases to their property taxes. Dorothy Mullenbach cited a 113 percent increase.  Jim Guthmiller said the taxes on a vacant piece of land he owns increased by more than 500 percent.

“I’m hoping it’s a mistake,” Guthmiller said.

The tax changes were largely due to changes in property value. Taxpayers can’t seek changes in value at the budget meeting. Such requests come during the board of equalization meetings in the spring.

Paying the bills

The county will continue funding the Senior Center at the current level, but the board is reducing the Historical Society’s allocation by 20 percent. The board will likely reject a request for the Ag Society for $15,000.

The Soil and Water Conservation District is expected to see a decrease of $10,825 — 7.5 percent — in 2011.

The board plans to freeze the commissioners’ salary for 2011. The county plans to continue sponsoring the Sentenced to Serve program.