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Preliminary levy set, budget gap narrows

Goodhue County Board set the preliminary 2014 property tax levy at $27.4 million, an increase of 1.72 percent. Even with the maximum levy increase allowed by the state, the county faces a $260,000 budget shortfall next year.

The motion passed 3-2 at a meeting Tuesday, with Commissioners Ted Seifert and Ron Allen voting against it.

Board members acknowledged something would have to be done to get county finances in line, but had differing opinions on exactly what that would look like.

"We need a new approach because next year is not going to be any better than this year," Seifert said.

Commissioner Jim Bryant said he agreed with Seifert, but encouraged him not to wait until the end of the year to bring new ideas forward.

"Instead of just waiting for the preliminary (levy) hearing to do that, be the person who brings that new approach," Bryant said.

Following Seifert and Allen's no votes, Bryant further voiced frustration over what he sees as the commissioners' willingness to approve projects but hesitation when it comes time to fund them.

"You just can't do that," he said. "I don't know why you do that."

Allen said he would be willing to freeze increased spending for outside agencies if necessary.

"Remember this is preliminary," said Commissioner Dan Rechtzigel, bringing the debate to a close. "We can have many more of these discussions all fall long."

The 2014 county budget is around $62.5 million, including $8.4 million in highway construction bonds, according to a staff report.

The county would need a levy increase of 2.68 percent over the 2013 amount to balance the budget, but Minnesota statute limits the increase to 1.72 percent, or $462,355, said Andrea Benck, county administrative assistant.

"We're not where we need to be yet," Benck said. "We still have to make some cuts."

County staff originally presented a budget gap of more than $500,000 at a workshop Aug. 20, but it was since reduced by around $300,000, County Administrator Scott Arneson said.

The savings were thanks to updated revenue calculations, staffing changes in the Health and Human Services department and removing a new position planned for Public Works.

Arneson said staff will continue to revise 2014 revenue figures and work with the county management team to find ways to cut spending in the coming weeks.

A Committee of the Whole discussion prior to the levy vote included the possibility of using insurance dividends and the newly approved county wheelage tax to help close the budget gap.

Staff said it expects to receive some money back from the Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust, which handles the county's casualty, property and workers' compensation insurance.

The MCIT fund balance could be used for a couple of one-time information technology purchases that would cut $60,000 from the 2014 budget.

Allen further suggested allocating around half of the estimated $450,000 wheelage tax revenue expected next year to help pay down county debt.

Finance Director Carolyn Holmsten said that would be a viable option for County Board to explore, but cautioned commissioners that it is still unclear how to county will receive money from the tax — which is collected by the state and doled out to counties monthly — and what the final amount will be.

Committee of the Whole meetings are planned for October to continue discussion of how to use the MCIT fund balance and wheelage tax revenue.

County Board has until Dec. 28 to certify the final levy amount.

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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