County OKs 1 percent levy increase

Published 10:31 am Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The county board was pleased with how the 2014 budget and levy turned out, but two commissioners thought they could do better.

The county board voted 3-2 Tuesday morning to approve a 1 percent levy increase for 2014, but Commissioners Tony Bennett and Jerry Reinartz voted against the motion in favor of a flat levy.

“I’m disappointed,” Reinartz said. “As you all know, I was hoping for a 0 percent increase, and I’m of the opinion the levy should only include the budget and expenses that were approved during negotiations and not include some speculative figure that we might be spending next year, because next year is next year.”

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Other commissioners expressed concern that decreasing the levy any further than a 1 percent increase would cause problems as a variety budget matters are just being finalized now. For example, the funeral homes asked to increase the cost of county burials late last week, and several other costs often pop up during the year. The board has a reserve contingency budget of $220,000.

Commissioner Polly Glynn said a flat levy would be a double-edged sword, in that the board would be going into 2014 with little wiggle room, which could lead them to have to amend budgets meet the needs.

She also said they don’t want to use any more reserves, as that would hinder the amount of money the county makes annually off interest. The board will use $400,000 in reserve funds for tax relief after a board proposal last year to use $1.5 million in reserves over five years for property tax relief.

Glynn noted the finance committee already made several adjustments to department heads’ requests to take the levy from the maximum 2.2 percent increase down to 1 percent.

“We leaned up everybody’s budgets pretty drastically,” Glynn said.

Health and Human Services is the only department to appeal its budget. Director Julie Stevermer had requested seven new positions, but the board approved four.

Bennett made a motion for a flat levy, but it didn’t receive a second to proceed to a vote.

“One percent is still a reasonable levy,” Bennett said.

However, Bennett and Reinartz both described a flat levy as a rare accomplishment, and they wish they could have attained it when they had the chance.

“I feel we missed an opportunity here in a year when we could have come with a zero increase,” Reinartz said.

After the meeting, Bennett admitted a flat levy would make minimal difference on individual tax statements for most property owners.

According to County Coordinator Craig Oscarson, the difference between 1 percent and a flat levy is about $172,000. With a 1 percent increase, the 2014 tax levy will be just shy of $17.4 million, and the total budget will be about $44.5 million.

Though the levy is increasing by 1 percent, county officials say most property owners will see lower taxes next year — except for farmers, who are seeing hefty increases because of tax shifts caused by the high value of ag land. Generally, most commercial properties will see a 5 to 8 percent decrease on 2014 county tax statements, and residential properties are seeing a 12 to 20 percent decrease, according to Oscarson. However, agricultural properties are seeing as much as a 100 to 200 percent increase.