Public: County not doing enough to ease tax burden

Published 9:55 am Friday, December 9, 2011

The public acknowledged the county board’s efforts to reduce spending Thursday but sent a strong message that commissioners must do much more.

“Have you done everything you can to avoid a tax increase?” Dennis Schminke asked the board.

More than 30 people attended the board’s annual Truth in Taxation meeting Thursday to weigh in on the county’s proposed 6.45 percent tax levy increase, which was lowered from the maximum 7 percent.

Email newsletter signup

The increase would mean a 2012 tax levy of $16.5 million, an increase from $15.5 million this year.

Chamber Executive Director Sandy Forstner said the board hasn’t done enough to lower the levy. While taxes have more than doubled in the last decade, Forstner said the board is asking the public to pay an additional $2.5 million in taxes in 2012 — $1 million in increased levy and $1.5 million more due to the end of the Market Value Credit.

“It’s forcing people to make decisions in their own lives, in their own businesses and on their own farms,” Forstner said.

Forstner challenged county department heads to come to the table with more ideas, because they’re experts on the county’s complex operations and budget.

“Other counties have done better this year,” Forstner said, citing counties that froze levies.

According to county officials, a number of factors caused the increase. The board is projecting a $200,000 increase in fuel costs in Public Works and in the Sheriff’s office.

In Human Services, more juveniles are committing adult-like crimes that are causing the department to outspend its budget by about $500,000 — a cost that’s added to the levy for next year after being paid by reserves in the past.

The tax shift from the Market Value Credit to the new Market Value Exclusion will cost the county about $1.5 million, which will be made up through the tax levy.

While people acknowledged the board’s hands are tied by the state and federal governments, they said all levels of government must assess priorities.

“I get the distinct impression that a lot of what we’re dealing with today is the result of that old devil, the unfunded mandate,” Schminke said. “I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that as a state and a nation we’re at some kind of a tipping point of having to decide just what it is that we want and can afford.”

Schminke said government, like the private sector, must sit down and fix its spending problems. But he noted the solution will take time.

“It isn’t all going to be solved this year,” Schminke said. “The fact that you’re seeing a declining revenue stream from other government entities tells me that you’re going to be having this same discussion next year and the year after and the year after because everybody’s credit card is overdrawn.”

Board Chairman Tim Gabrielson said the budget has been one of the key issues since he was elected.

“Do we have everything perfect? No, but don’t think … that’s not our main priority along with safety,” Gabrielson said.

One way the county board has shaved costs is by merging departments. The board merged the Highway Department and Environmental Services to form Public Works earlier this year. Without that merger, County Coordinator Craig Oscarson estimated the levy would have increased another 1 to 2 percent.

The board is expected to approve another merger — Health and Human Services — next week, which will save an estimated $90,000.

Oscarson described the county’s business model as upside-down, in that a bad economy drives up costs in crime and Human Services.

“When the economy goes bad, we have more business,” Oscarson said.

Despite the county’s constraints, local resident Jim Hartson said the board must find a way to live within its means.

“When you don’t live within your means, the burden comes back on us,” he said. “The bottom line is it can’t be business as usual.”

Hartson said he is disappointed in the board, especially since four of the five members are in their first terms.

“You’re going to have to make some tough decisions,” Hartson said.

Despite the recent challenges in the economy, Schminke said, the poor economy will turn around. But, he urged caution when it does.

However, he said, the board and state must be cautious when times are good again. When the money is available again, government should save money so they have proper reserves if another recession should be in the future.

Plus, government should be cautious about what new programs it funds.

“Let’s learn from this experience,” he said.

Wage claim causes stir

Commissioner Ray Tucker caught some harsh words from local residents during Thursday’s Truth in Taxation meeting.

When talking about budget issues, Tucker said if all the Chamber’s businesses gave employees a $5 raise, the county could cut its Human Services’ budget because fewer people would qualify for services.

The idea was not popular with the crowd, and many people laughed and called the idea crazy and stupid.

“That would put them all out of business tomorrow,” Chamber Director Sandy Forstner said.

But, Tucker argued, the county is paying more for services, and if people were making more money, they wouldn’t qualify for or need assistance.

Many in the audience claimed standards have lowered enough that most people qualify for assistance programs.

County Coordinator Craig Oscarson clarified Tucker’s point by noting businesses often don’t pay people enough to provide and sustain for their families.

“Many employers are not providing livable wage rates, probably because they can’t afford to,” he said.

Still, some in the audience continued to say standards have lowered too much, and high taxes have people in need of help.

Human Services Director Julie Stevermer backed Tucker and Oscarson, arguing that she sees the number of “working poor” growing in Mower County.

“They’re not making the wage, nor do they get the benefits to be able to provide and sustain with their family,” she said.

Stevermer said more people are coming into her office with threats to be evicted or lose their utilities, but Human Services can’t always meet their needs.

“We turn people away,” she said.