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County budget debate boils over

Discussion to adopt a preliminary 2016 budget turned into an impassioned debate Tuesday evening between Goodhue County Commissioner Dan Rechtzigel and Board Chair Ted Seifert.

Seifert cited a recent Minnesota Housing Partnership report about county rent prices outpacing incomes to justify opposing a staff-recommended 3.77 percent levy increase, stating he is more concerned about people being able to afford housing than funding preventative maintenance on county buildings and equipment.

“I don’t think it’s fair to throw out there that any increase in the levy means that a person can’t afford their rent,” Rechtzigel responded, noting taxes could go down on certain properties even with a levy increase based on other factors.

He went on to criticize Seifert’s record of opposing levy increases since being elected to County Board in 2003.

“You’re letting three commissioners do the responsible budgeting while you run out there and tell the people, ‘Look at me, I’ve never raised your taxes,’” Rechtzigel said, calling it “a chicken way to do budgeting.”

“The people I’m looking out for are constituents, not the county organization,” Seifert said.

Budget workshops

County staff has been working to revise next year’s proposed budget currently at just over $59 million — down around $900,000 since being revealed in mid-August.

Commissioners and department heads have held two workshops to fine tune the budget, the latest of them on Monday when staff revealed an 8 percent reduction in health insurance costs for county employees next year instead of an anticipated 10 percent increase.

Seifert also laid out a plan Monday to reduce the levy below this year’s amount that includes a 0.5 percent cut in payroll, delaying replacement of Sheriff’s Office and Public Works equipment and using insurance money from recently purchased property in Red Wing that burned down.

Rechtzigel said using a one-time payment to fund the budget is shortsighted.

“That’s like taking from your savings accounts to supplement your income.”

Future liabilities

Commissioner Brad Anderson also opposed the staff-recommended budget, saying he would like it to put aside money to refill depleted fund balances and plan for upcoming liabilities such as technology upgrades and roof replacements.

“We know what those costs are out there. If we don’t deal with them, we’re not being very fiscally responsible,” Anderson said.

With an anticipated bump in the county’s tax capacity, the 2016 levy could be raised to $30 million — about a 7 percent increase — without affecting the overall tax rate, Finance Director Carolyn Holmsten told the board. A flat rate means property owners would not see a county tax increase next year provided their home value also remains the same.

County Board approved a 2.25 percent levy increase for 2015. The 10-year average increase is 1.71 percent.

Commissioner Ron Allen forwarded a motion Tuesday to set the preliminary budget at $58.8 million, equating to a 2016 levy increase of 2.9 percent.

But Rechtzigel then forwarded and Allen seconded a motion to table the vote until the Sept. 15 County Board meeting, when commissioners also are expected to approve the preliminary 2016 levy.

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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