Wright County Board receives petition to lower 2014 budget

One of the primary tenets of the process in which the Wright County Board of Commissioners determines its budget is to attempt to keep the levy (the amount of the budget paid for through property tax) be as low as possible. At the Aug. 13 meeting of the county board, they reminded of that with a petition from county residents.
Tom McGregor, a resident of Albion Township, spoke before the board armed with a petition with 120 signatures asking that the county reduce its 2014 budget by 1 percent. While mindful that up to half of the budget include items that the county board can’t control such as state-mandated responsibilities, McGregor said the petitioners are looking for the county to make reductions in the areas in which they have discretionary control.
“We’re guessing that the county board is in control of 50 percent of the budget,” McGregor said. “With a budget of $100 million, that would be $50 million that is in the control of the county board. A 1 percent reduction would be $500,000. We think 1 percent is reasonable and responsible.”
While residents asking for a reduction in government spending is nothing new, the 2014 budget is going to be unique for a couple of reasons that could make a 1 percent reduction extremely difficult if not impossible.
“I think it will be difficult to achieve that reduction,” Board Chairman Pat Sawatzke said. “There is a 1 percent cost-of-living increase in 2014 that will add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The bigger issue is going to be the Obamacare laws that will come into place next year. We will probably have to add up to six new employees to administer the program. When you combine the-cost-of living increase and the addition of more employees, just those two things will make a budget reduction difficult at best.”
Part of the problem for Wright County is that, while some states are handling the Obamacare legislation at the state level, Minnesota designates counties to do the legwork. Although the state will eventually cover 75 percent of the administrative cost, 25 percent falls on counties and the state’s share is paid in the form of reimbursement. That means that counties have to budget for the full cost of administering the program and have a governmental transfer line item to account for the money anticipated to come back from the state.
As a result, the county board is going to have to make some tough budgeting decisions to keep the budget close to where it was in 2013, much less reducing it.
“We definitely understand the message that they were sending to the board,” Sawatzke said. “I can’t speak for the other commissioners, but I think we all agree that it is a good idea in theory. But, given what we’re facing with the unique aspects of this year’s budget, it’s going to be extremely difficult to achieve that this year.”
In other items on the Aug. 13 agenda, the board:
• Adopted a resolution to retain the current process in which the county classifies and reclassifies tax forfeit land parcels. In the last legislative session, the state approved an alternate process to reclassify tax-forfeit properties, but Wright County Auditor/Treasurer Bob Hiivala said the new process is cumbersome and more expensive, while the old process has worked well for Wright County in the past. The resolution passed unanimously.
• Awarded the CSAH 34 trail project to New Look Contracting Inc. for $970,930. The bid award was delayed while the Minnesota Department of Transportation affirmed that the low bidder was in compliance with state regulations involving the hiring of minority contractors for the project. The county is administering the project on behalf of the cities of St. Michael and Hanover, but no county dollars are involved.
• Approved a resolution authorizing final payment for the 2012 Chevron Safety Project with A&H Contracting. The contract was designated to provide warnings to drivers of dangerous curves on county highways to alert them better and put up yellow sign posts to make the degree of the turns more visible at night. The resolution authorized the final payment of $7,239.
• Scheduled a meeting to discuss issues regarding County Ditches 22 and 31 for 2 p.m. Monday, Aug. 19 at Woodland Township Hall. The meeting will discuss the dollars needed to make the repairs to the ditch system, the ongoing methods of short-term ditch maintenance and the impact of a redetermination of benefited landowners as the repairs to the ditch proceed.
• Approved law enforcement contracts with the cities of Hanover and South Haven for 2014-2105.
• Set a tax forfeiture committee meeting for 9 a.m. Friday, Sept. 13 in the auditor/treasurer’s office. The purpose of the meeting will be to classify the designation of properties as public/private and conservation/non-conservation properties.
• Approved a two-year grant with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in the amount of $19,634 for increased all-terrain vehicle enforcement. The grant will allow the sheriff’s department to increase ATV patrols to make sure that ATV riders are in compliance with state and county regulations regarding the legal use of such vehicles.

Freelancer John Holler covers government and the Wright County Board of Commissioners.

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