A year ago at this time, the storm clouds were gathering as the reality of a spike in Wright County’s certified levy, the amount of taxes paid by county residents to supplement the county’s annual budget, was going to jump a whopping 17.3 % was setting in. It created outrage among residents that such a significant increase could come in one year.
A year later, the Wright County Board of Commissioners at its Sept. 24 meeting approved the draft 2020 budget and draft certified levy, which includes a 6.7% levy increase. There was a sense of relief among the commissioners that the 2020 increase is effectively negated by the increase in the tax base due to new construction in 2019.
“We should all take great pride in the fact that it’s not last year’s number,” Commissioner Mike Potter said. “That was the anomaly that you just don’t want to go revisit again. This one is more reflective of just factoring in the (county’s) growth.”
The draft 2020 budget is $160,949,532 (a 9.3% increase) and the draft levy for 2020 is $74,673,413 (a 6.7% increase).
The county has embraced long-term strategic forecasting models to not only devise the budget for 2020, but factoring in known costs out for years to avoid the one-time bubble that was created over years of holding back on raising taxes during the last economic recession that began in earnest in 2008 and created mounting budget problems.
Auditor-Treasurer Bob Hiivala said it was known for a couple of years prior to the 2019 budget process that a correction needed to be made. At the time, it was decided the county could either take the one-time hit or have double-digit increases for three or four years in a row. One way or another, it was going to happen and the county opted to take the one-year correction option and be done with it.
“We knew that was going to happen,” Hiivala said. “It’s not that you did something wrong. We knew a correction was going to have to happen and it happened last year.”
Commissioner Mark Daleiden praised the county’s department heads, who worked cooperatively with the board to keep the 2020 levy increase low by not making significant demands for increases to their individual department budgets, adding that if residents didn’t have an increase to the value of their property in 2019, they won’t see much if any increases in their county tax statement in 2020.
Commissioner Christine Husom pointed out that $134,525 of the 2020 levy is money earmarked for funding stipends to Lake Improvement Districts. That money is collected in property taxes for those residents only, which drops the actual levy increase to all country residents down to 6.52 percent.
“The Lake Improvement District numbers are money in, money out,” Husom said. “It’s not really an impact to the (overall) levy.”
Board Chair Darek Vetsch said that the county had to swallow the bitter pill last year to bring the levy process back on track, but it should remain consistent for years to come because of how the board is now approaching doing the budget/levy process.
“This is a great step forward to levy stabilization in creating more predictability,” Vetsch said. “I do believe we went through this budget process without trying to create a bottleneck for years to come, which kind of what put us to what happened last year. Going forward, if we continue with this methodology as a board and the staff keeps working with us like this, it hopefully should be predictable.”
In other items on the agenda, the board:
By a 3-2 vote, adopted amendments to the county’s tobacco ordinance, raising the age for the purchase of tobacco-related products from age 18 to 21. The changes to the ordinance significantly increase the penalties to establishments that sell tobacco products to those under the age of 21 as compared to the current ordinance. The amendments to the ordinance will take effect Jan. 1, 2020. Commissioners Charlie Borrell and Daleiden voting against it. Borrell said it should be a statewide decision to make such a change and doesn’t believe it will work. Daleiden had issue with the ordinance language changes as well as the piecemeal way the T21 law is being approved individually around the state.