County’s levy rising to $19.25M
Published 10:21 am Wednesday, December 2, 2015
Staffing needs, road maintenance and several other factors are driving the county’s estimated 2016 budget to over $19 million.
The county board held its annual truth in taxation meeting Tuesday night with a few members of the public attending to voice opinions on the budget and levy.
The board is now primed to set its 2016 levy at $19.25 million — or an increase at about 3.4 percent or $635,700 — at 10 a.m. during its Dec. 15 meeting in the board room of the Mower County Government Center. The board could still lower the increase, but board members have said that is unlikely.
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One driving factor is new positions, including an assistant county attorney, an environmental technician, a human resource technician, a finance worker, a child and family social worker, and a part-time jailer.
“In general most of the employee requests are due to work load or due to downward shifts from the state of Minnesota,” County Coordinator Oscarson said.
For example, legislative and MNsure changes drove the need for new employees in Mower County Health and Human Services, and Oscarson noted the county’s high crime and poverty rates also drives the need for services.
“When you look at our budget, the changes are basically due to the service levels that we have to answer to,” he said.
However, not all members of the public were happy with the need to add employees. Farmer Jim Hartson questioned if it was necessary to add the additional staff.
“In business, you’d look little deeper,” he said.
He urged the board to stop annually increasing property taxes, which he said are putting a burden on farmers.
In the jail, the half-time position is expected to help buoy the budget, which has incurred high overtime fees.
“We have a high inmate count, we’re pushing our maximum based on current staffing levels at times,” Oscarson said.
Part of that is due to the inmate count hovering around the 88 inmate threshold for staffing in the current jail. If it goes consistently higher, the county would need to add additional staff based on Department of Corrections guidelines.
The jail has also seen a high turnover rate and some employee challenges that resulted in high overtime costs. Oscarson noted jailer positions are much more complex and difficult than when he started with the county more than 30 years ago, and he said there’s more crime today with more challenging inmates.
“We need highly qualified jailers to fill that position. It’s a difficult job nowadays,” Oscarson said.
Oscarson said they’re also seeing big expenses in medications and medical services at the jail.
After residents voiced concerns over the upkeep of county gravel roads earlier this year, the county is adding $100,000 to maintain the county’s 40 miles of gravel roads. The budget also includes $50,000 for culvert and sign work.
Since the county maintains just more than 400 total miles of total roads, the discussions won’t end there.
“Our roads are failing in many ways,” Oscarson said.
Oscarson admitted the roads aren’t where he and the board would like, but that’s due to funding and not any failures by Mower County Public Works. That’s one reason the board is in the early stages of discussing a local option sales tax that could raise as much as $2 million annually to fund specific road projects. Public Works Director Mike Hanson is currently compiling a list of the projects that could be completed if the board adopted the plan.
“It doesn’t mean we’re going to do it,” Oscarson said. “It just means we’re going to study it.”
Infrastructure projects are typically funded through the state gas tax, but that hasn’t been adjusted to match inflation. With little action at the state in recent years, several neighboring counties have adopted a local option sales tax.
“The legislature, we believe, is not doing their job in funding roads and bridges, so we’re forced to fund them locally some way,” Oscarson said.
Oscarson noted costs have increased significantly. When he started more than 30 years ago, it cost about $400,000 per mile of road.
Now it now costs $1.2 to $1.5 million per mile.
However, Oscarson noted such a sales tax would have to be specific to road and bridge projects. It couldn’t go to staffing costs or other things.
Other budget factors
Several other factors are driving the budget.
A change from the county corner system to a medical examiner will make for an increase of about $38,085 over this year.
The county is adding Pictometry technology, which is a mapping system for the assessor, auditor-treasurer, recorder, zoning and sheriff’s offices. However, the $192,180 for the service was expected to be funded entirely through the Land Records Fund, which comes from fees for recording documents and not property taxes.
The county is looking to replace its outdated telephone system, which would cost an estimated $165,000 — a budget increase of $145,000.
After seeing a significant increase last year, the county is expected to have a $200,000 increase in County Program Aid. However, the county recently passed a resolution to support a change in the formula for the program aid to focus more on stabilization. County Program Aid aims to provide funding to help counties have equal core services, but the county has taken hits in recent years because the formula hits counties with a strong ag land base harder.
Though the request was for $21,000, the Mower County Historical Society will get a $10,0000 increase in 2016 appropriation to receive $44,765.