Commissioners OK 4.5 percent levy increase

Published 9:50 am Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The county board whittled down its 2012 tax levy increase, but not as far as two commissioners had hoped. Now the board could be looking toward big spending cuts in 2012.

After earlier setting its maximum levy increase at 7 percent, the county board on Tuesday approved a 4.5 percent increase on a 4-1 vote. Commissioner Jerry Reinartz, who had suggested the county use its reserves rather than increase taxes, voted against the increase.

“Personally, I don’t want to be in the top 10 or 12 counties in the state of Minnesota as far as levy increases,” Reinartz said. “It’s a real strain on the taxpayers this year with a loss of the homestead credit and some of the other budget increases.”

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Reinartz’s motion for a zero-increase levy failed 3-2. Only Commissioner Tony Bennett joined him in supporting the motion.

Commissioner Ray Tucker, who heads the finance committee, moved for a 6 percent increase, but didn’t get a second. Tucker said he did not want to deplete the county’s reserves.

“We’ve spent a long time working on this budget,” he said.

Commissioner Mike Ankeny entered a motion to meet in the middle with a 4.5 percent levy increase.

“I think some relief is probably possible, but it’s important to keep a rainy day fund and little bit of reserves,” Ankeny said.

Ankeny noted the board has been working to keep expenses down. “We’ve had success in reducing our budget,” he said. “It does take time.”

While he would have liked a levy freeze, Reinartz said he was pleased the board backed off from its original 7 percent increase. “I’m just happy it was reduced,” he said.

Only a few of the 30 people who attended last Thursday’s Truth in Taxation meeting attended to see the board resolve its 2012 budget and levy.

Charles Mills, who attended both meetings with Chamber Director Sandy Forstner, said he was pleased the board trimmed the levy and noted unfunded mandates are really hurting local government.

“Zero would have been great, but that would have been expecting an awful lot,” Mills said.

Now, the board must look for savings in its 2012 expense budget. “We’ve got to get control of some of these costs,” Reinartz said. “Therefore, I think we should review all the departments’ budgets in 2012.”

Bennett said the board could look at different snow plowing techniques, like faster equipment, as a way to trim labor costs.

“Anything’s on the table,” he said.

Despite originally proposing a 6 percent increase, Tucker also said the board must work hard to curb costs.

“I have to agree with Reinartz: This next year we have to work even harder at getting these costs under control,” Tucker said.

However, Reinartz noted cutting the budget won’t be an easy task, especially when state cuts can have an adverse effect on the budget.

“What’s really hurt us is the things we can’t control,” Reinartz said.

Without further cuts to the 2012 budget, the additional funds needed to make up the reduced levy would come from the county’s reserves. However, Bennett noted the board could make cuts throughout the year to make up the difference.

County approves Health and Human Services merger

First they’re moving, now they’re merging.

The county board unanimously approved the merger of Health and Human Services Tuesday, a move that could save an estimated $90,000 next year.

The board will look to merge the offices by May of next year.

A lot of work still needs to be done.

One big remaining issue is negotiations with the two unions involved. Merging the departments means employees may have to leave one union and join another, which can be tricky.

The board renewed Lisa Kocer as interim director of Public Health. She will serve that role until likely switching to community health services manager.

Both Kocer and Human Services Director Julie Stevermer have supported the merger, noting it will be a chance for the two offices to improve operate more efficiently.