County sets preliminary 2022 levy at 3.9%

Published 1:33 pm Thursday, September 16, 2021

Long term agreement with the city over LEC operations could drive that higher if not resolved


The Mower County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday set a preliminary tax levy for 2022.

During a work session following its regular meeting, commissioners agreed to a 3.9% rise from last year as a starting point. Commissioners are optimistic that it can be brought down to the board’s goal of 3.1%; however, it may hinge on an agreement with the City of Austin on Law Enforcement Center operations, which is currently being negotiated.

The county and city split LEC operations 50-50, That excludes the cost of deputies and police officers, but covers the cost of 911 services and records to the tune of around $900,000.

An agreement has been in place for nearly 30 years; however, in July the city indicated it would like to back out of the current agreement, giving the county a short window to adjust its own budget and levy.

County Administrator Trish Harren explained the sticking point is 911 services.

“They don’t want to pay for dispatch, which is not common,” Harren said. “It’s true in most situations it’s separate. In that case, the city has its own non-emergency line and those calls don’t come into central dispatch. Cities don’t participate in paying for 911 calls and records.”

The problem, however, rests in the balance of funding. Should the city back out of the current agreement, then the county would be saddled with an additional $450,000, directly affecting the levy. Harren estimates that the amount would boost the levy another 1.5% to 4.6%

“I didn’t think that would be fair,” Harren told the board, who agreed.

“We’re going to incur costs while they flat line?” asked Commissioner Mike Ankey during the discussion.

“What makes them think they should get out of it and we pay for the whole bill?” asked Commissioner Jerry Reinartz. “That’s unreasonable.”

“If you take a look at what we’ve got reimbursed from the city for the LEC versus what they are proposing… does that take us up to 3.9%?” Commission Chair Polly Glynn asked Finance Manager Donna Welsh, who was at Tuesday’s work session.

“It would probably exceed that,” Welsh said, echoing Harren.

Throughout the state, set-ups like what Mower County and the City of Austin have are rare. Harren explained Tuesday that state statute dictates that sheriff departments are obligated to pay 911 services.

“In 84 counties, the county pays 100%,” Harren said. “What makes it different is if we weren’t joint, the city would have to have somebody to handle all of their administrative costs.”

Further muddying the water for the county is that it still hasn’t heard back from the city on specifics of what they are looking for, creating a fluid situation for the county’s own budget.

“Until the city comes back with what they formerly want to propose, we don’t know what that dollar amount is,” Harren said. “What does an agreement look like between us?”

While nothing is decided as of yet, Harren expressed that it would be nice to keep any increase in the levy to around 3.1%, which has been helped by a good year for insurance. The county will see a 0% rise in cost on that front.

Ultimately, Harren said that she believes an agreement between the two government entities can be reached.

“We have had a long term, very positive relationship with the city,” Harren said. “We’re certainly not going to let this ruin it.”

The county will present budget and levy numbers for 2022 at the board’s meeting on Sept. 28 and will finalize those numbers later in December.

Body cameras

The county took one step closer to purchasing body cameras for the Mower County Sheriff’s Department for use by jail staff.

During the work session, Harren told commissioners that at this point it’s just a matter of getting everybody to the same place, including Mower County Sheriff Steve Sandvik, Mower County Attorney Kristen Nelsen and the board.

However, that has only begun to happen recently after quotes were collected in June. While all three sides seem to be on board, it’s now become a matter of clarification.

“As for the body cameras, we are very much in favor,” Nelsen said. “We will do whatever we need to do to approve that. We just ask that we are involved.”

According to initial expenditures, the county is looking to put $250,000 into body cameras out of the $7.8 million from American Rescue Plan Act grant dollars. That money is already on hand through the $3.9 million already received.

The cameras are expected to be purchased in 2022.

In other news:

• Mower County Health and Human Services Director Crystal Peterson said one of three COVID-19 grants the county had been relying on has been extended through 2023 with up to 10% for use as incentives urging people get a first shot of the vaccine in the form of a $100 VISA gift card. Both the board and Peterson, however, questioned just how much good it would do.

“I believe it was around 80,000 when the state gave the incentive,” Peterson answered when asked how well it’s worked in the past. “I think it might help a few people on the fence, but if you don’t want to get vaccinated, you’re not going to.”

Instead, Peterson suggested the money be used elsewhere, possibly at the end of the year when it might become possible for children 12 and under to get vaccinated.

So far, the county has spent just $57,000 of the total grant amount, which is mostly staff time. Grant dollars have to be used by Dec. 31, 2023.

“There is some room in the grant for mental health support for the staff,” Peterson said. “ I think that would make great use of it.”

“We need to get creative to figure out how to take advantage of these funds,” said Commissioner Jeff Baldus.

• Ankeny indicated a desire to take a close look at how the county is going to handle recycling moving forward after complaints during the Mower County Fair that included lack of recycling options and leaking containers.

Ankeny expressed frustration as to the progress currently going on in finding a solution.

“Nothing has happened with that,” Ankeny said. “Every time I ask about it, ‘we’re working on it.’ I don’t like that answer.”

Ankeny also said he would like to see sturdier containers used at places like the fair to replace current containers that are hard to deal with and don’t stand up well to daily rigors.