County board looking for lower ’13 tax increase

Published 8:15 pm Saturday, November 24, 2012

The county board knows what it wants with 2013 taxes, but getting there is the hard part.

“As far as I’m concerned, I’d like to see a zero [percent levy change],” said Commissioner Jerry Reinartz, one of two commissioners on the finance committee.

The county is facing one of its highest tax increases in recent years, as the board could tax for up to $1.84 million more revenue in 2013. That would increase the 2013 county levy to $18.9 million, an 11.5 percent increase from the $16.2 million levy in 2012, when the levy increased 4.5 percent from 2011.

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In September, the board approved its maximum levy increase — 11.5 percent — but commissioners have been working to bring it down.

The board will discuss the levy at its 9:30 a.m. board meeting Tuesday, and more details should come out at the Dec. 6 truth in taxation meeting. Then, the board will set its final levy amount in mid-to late December.

Reinartz said he’d hoped for an increase closer to 3 or 4 percent, but he said that will be difficult because of portions of the budget out of their control. Still, the board wants to at least bring the levy increase into single digits.

“I don’t want to be in double digits — I have no desire for that,” Commissioner Tony Bennett said.

Reinartz said the board is concerned about a high levy’s impact, and the finance committee met recently to continue honing in taxes.

“We’ve been looking at every angle, including all the department budgets,” Reinartz said.


Driving issues

Commissioners say the levy problems are the result of state cuts and state-mandated spending. Of the additional $1.84 million in costs, about $1.3 million is the result of issues out of their hands.

That includes the loss of about $404,000 in County Program Aid, about $354,000 added costs for out-of-home placements and the two additional social workers for about $90,000, according to Commissioner Tim Gabrielson.

If it weren’t for those factors, commissioners say, the levy increase would be closer to 3 percent.

Gabrielson, who sits on the county’s finance committee, said the levy is still a work in progress, and the board wants to make the right decisions, rather than the quick one.

“We don’t want to rush into something and make any fast decisions … because what we do will have a ripple effect, and we want as few ripples as possible,” Gabrielson said.

Gabrielson said the board has already turned down many requests from department heads to hire new employees. The only new position added is a sheriff’s deputy to focus on social services fraud, but Gabrielson said he expects the county will offset those costs with the money the position brings in.

Board members have also said they’ll look to use reserves as one way to make up the budget needs.

“We’re definitely going to consider using reserves, too,” Reinartz said.

Commissioner Ray Tucker also said the board will likely use reserves, but he said that’s not a perfect solution, because it delays budget needs if reserve funds aren’t used every year.

With salaries and benefits making up the biggest portion of their budget, Reinartz said, they’ll also be looking at a hiring freeze as employees retire.

“There’s a chance they would not be replaced,” Reinartz said.

The board will also look at delaying future capital improvement plans, and getting staff to do minor work like painting and carpeting. However, one major project — the Government Center remodel to bring Health and Human Services back downtown — will continue as planned, according to Reinartz.


Steps in the right direction?

To Bennett, it’s not business as usual at the county, and he objects to people saying nothing has changed.

In the last few years, Bennett said, the county has eliminated Central Services, combined Human Services with Public Health, combined Environmental Services with the Highway Department and worked on the Human Services redesign. While there’s no silver bullet to solving budget issues, Bennett said, these small moves have been steps in the right direction.

To make a big splash, Bennett said, the board would have to look at cuts to things like roads and bridges.

“I think it would be very short-sighted to undermine our infrastructure,” Bennett said in an email.

The board is getting creative, finding ways to save money while trying to avoid cuts to key services like sheriff’s deputies and snow removal.

Commissioner Tony Bennett said he is hoping the finance committee makes a plan that keeps taxes low in years to come.

“My goal is to make sure the changes I recommend are long-lasting, and that we don’t revert back to pre-recession practices,” Bennett said in an email.

Gabrielson also pointed to the mergers as a sign the board has tried new things.

“I think we’ve made a lot of headway in the last four years, especially with how the economy is,” he said.

Now, Gabrielson is hoping the work to possibly merge the Human Services departments of four counties will provide efficiencies and eventually lead to cost savings.

Plus, Gabrielson noted, the state could eventually force underperforming counties to join if they didn’t merge now.

“I don’t want to be on board a big ship and not have control of where it’s going,” Gabrielson said.

To Tucker, who’s serving his 16th and final year on the county board, the funding issues are nothing new.

“That’s a never-ending problem,” he said.

Commissioner-elect Polly Glynn, who recently defeated Tucker in District 2, is no stranger to managing budgets as the former president of First State Bank in LeRoy.

“I understand that a lot of things in the budget you don’t have a lot of control over,” Glynn said during the election.

After winning the seat, Glynn said she’s eager to dig in. She said she’s particularly interested in out-of-home placement costs in Human Services.

But for the 2013 budget year, a lot of the decisions will be made before Glynn takes office in January.

More details on the board’s plan to address the funding needs should come out in coming weeks, and they board will set a final levy in December.