A year ago at this time, the Wright County Board of Commissioners started to realize how significant the anticipated spike in the county’s budget and certified levy (the amount paid by residents) and the reaction that would likely ensue.
The firestorm that followed led to a contentious election cycle in which Commissioners Mark Daleiden and Christine Husom were blasted by opponents and a Political Action Committee alike, claiming the county was wildly spending taxpayer dollars.
Instead, it was years of delaying payments on the county jail, several employees that had their positions funded by the state coming on the county’s books and the decision to fund the new Government Center through an annual line item in the county budget that led to the precedent-setting jump in the levy. Commissioner Mike Potter said that once the numbers were added up, it was immediately obvious that this was going to be a hard pill for the commissioners and county residents to swallow.
“A year ago when we had our first meeting, because of a lot of different factors that came together at the same time and that we had to take the hit in one year, the number came in at 23 percent,” Potter said. “We knew we could trim some things out, but, pretty much that day, most of us knew that it wasn’t going to get under 17 percent when we took our first look at the budget, because more than 10 percent of it were pre-approved things that we couldn’t take out..”
The annual budget sessions began Wednesday, Aug. 7 with a starting number that would reflect an increase of 8.85 percent factoring in all existing budget requests for 2020. The anticipation is that it will go down from there – how much to be determined over the next few weeks. But, Potter said the continued growth of the county has made actual levy increases less impactful as the percentage number would indicate.
As Wright County continues to add new homes and businesses, the cost of paying the levy portion of the budget is spread around to more taxpayers, lessening the individual burden.
“A lot of people have learned a lot about what tax rates mean over the last couple of years,” Potter said. “For two years running in 2015-16, my property value on a commercial property I own stayed the same, but my county taxes went down by $100 a year. This year with the 17 percent increase, it went up by $150, which was actually about a 9 percent increase, not 17. I’m still paying less now than I did in 2016 and I think that’s true for most people in the county. You don’t remember when it goes down, but you do when it goes up.”
A combination of factors that were in play resulted in the one-time spike in the levy, setting a new baseline moving forward. Arriving at the current budget/levy baseline could have been accomplished easier with increases of 8-10 percent over a three-year span than one balloon levy hike, but it doesn’t mean that future increases won’t happen.
As a growth county, the need to meet the needs of the public – whether it’s in increased demand for human services, law enforcement, information technology, administration or the numerous services the county provides – are still a front-burner issue and comprise the majority of increases in the starting number for the 2020 levy.
“The biggest challenge we’re going to be facing this year are personnel requests,” Commissioner Charlie Borrell said. “We know the county is growing, but we have to work smart. Just adding more people to a bunch of departments or creating new positions isn’t the answer. Personnel costs have always been the No. 1 expense in the county and there are some positions that are truly needed and those will be approved. But, we have to look at ways of streamlining how we do things, not just continue to add a bunch of new employees every year just because we continue to grow as a county.”
Despite last year’s mammoth increase, Wright County is still just 70th out of 87 counties in Minnesota in per capita spending – still in the bottom 20 percent in the state. The county has moved up the list in recent years, but, unlike many counties that have relatively static populations, Wright County continues see its population grow to absorb levy increases.
But, with more people comes more crime and more demands on local government. Those demands require the growth of county government and 2020 will be no exception.
“In the preliminary budget, I believe there were requests for 14 new employees,” Daleiden said. “Several departments are looking for one or more new employees and we have to determine which ones are most needed. That, combined with the classification and compensation study we’re currently doing is likely going the change the pay range for many employees. It’s a difficult part of the budget process every year – who do you hire and what positions to you hold off for a year or two?”
The budget schedule will be conducted over nine days – Aug. 7 (overview of draft budget/5-Year Forecast), Aug. 8 (Capital Improvement Plan projects), Aug. 14 (position request review), Aug. 15 (attorney/court services/assessor/Planning & Zoning/county board), Aug. 19 (Health & Human Services), Aug. 21 (road and bridge/Veteran Services/surveyor) and Aug. 22 (court administration/recorder/Parks & Recreation/Information Technology), Aug. 26 (sheriff/extension/building care and maintenance/Budget 100/auditor-treasurer/elections) and Aug. 28 (Soil & Water Conservation District/Health & Human Services/remaining open items).
Department heads will state their cases why their departments are in need of additional staffing or funding. The arguments will be genuine and persuasive. But, on the heels of the biggest single-year levy jump in county history, the board is expected to use considerable restraint when it comes to arriving at a final 2020 budget and levy number.
“I we go over 10 percent this year, people will have our necks,” Potter said.
It won’t be 10 percent. Given the outrage that was created – for some, no explanation could suffice – the goal is take the 8.85 percent starting number and work its way down from there to a number that can more easily be justified.
“We would like to be in the 4 to 5 percent range when all is said and done,” Borrell said. “If that happens, because of our growth, the tax rate paid by residents could very easily stay the same or even go down. Last year, we added something like $250 million in new tax base. That helps spread the cost around, so a 5 percent increase wouldn’t mean a 5 percent increase in the amount of taxes paid to the county.”
The board will adopt a draft budget and levy in September and hold a Truth In Taxation public hearing in December. Once the draft budget/levy is approved, it can’t go up from that point. Given their experience from last August and beyond, the board has no intention of making next year’s levy headline news.
John Holler covers county government and the Wright County Board of Commissioners.