For years, the Wright County Board of Commissioners was referred to as everything from frugal to fiscally responsible to downright cheap. The county board consistently found ways to maintain as little growth in the county’s budget and certified taxable levy. During the economic downturn, a hiring freeze was put in place to keep the numbers down.
It was thought that, with a new county board that is markedly more progressive on issues ranging from transportation to technological advancement, the 2014 budget and levy could be an eye-opener for taxpayers.
It was, but it turned out it wasn’t for the reasons anticipated. The county board passed a budget that was less than 2013 and a levy that increases by less than $16,000.
The final budget was set at $102,330,902, a reduction from the 2013 budget of $102,850,890. The levy, the amount of the budget financed by taxpayers, was set at $50,566,396, a miniscule increase from 2013. The difference in the 2014 levy from the $50,550,634 from the 2013 levy was just $15,762, .03 percent – three-hundredths of one percent.
“My target has always been a zero increase,” Board Chairman Pat Sawatzke said. “We got it practically to zero this year and came in at about as close to zero as we could. I was very pleased how it went because we weren’t exactly sure how it was going to go with so many new people involved, but I thought it went very well.”
The 2013 budget process was unique in the recent history of the county board. For more than 20 years, not only had Sawatzke and fellow Commissioners Jack Russek and Dick Mattson been part of the budget process, but County Coordinator Dick Norman had overseen the budget process for 30 years. This time around, there were four new commissioners and a new county coordinator in Lee Kelly.
“I thought it went smoothly,” Kelly said. “This year the department heads came in with good budgets and the commissioners took a very close look at everything they wanted. The standing order was to come in with a similar budget to what they had this year. For the most part, the department heads brought in good budgets and didn’t come in looking for significant increases.”
Kelly said that there were some concerns about the number of county budget first-timers in the room, but that there was a general consensus on most of the budget requests that came through and that things went as well or better than could be expected.
“Considering this was my first year overseeing the budget process and we had four new commissioners in the room, I thought the process went pretty smoothly,” Kelly said. “We spent a little longer looking at each department budget, which would be expected with so many new commissioners who had questions about specific items. I didn’t know how it would go with all the new people being involved, including myself, but I thought it went very well and we came away with a budget and levy that we were all happy with.”
Sawatzke, who ran for re-election on the platform of providing experience to the operations of the county, came away pleased with how the process evolved over the summer.
“I think we went at this process trying to keep the costs down on both the budget and levy,” Sawatzke said. “We worked together and there weren’t many conflicts. I think we were all on the same page with most of the items and it went pretty smoothly for most part.”
In other items on the Dec. 3 agenda, the board:
• By a 4-1 vote approved a resolution granting Corinna Township shoreland zoning authority. Assistant County Attorney Greg Kryzer was asked to respond to a newspaper editorial that said such a vote requires a minimum of a 4/5 vote to approve such authority to a township to take such action. The initial approval came with a 3-2 vote from the board, with Commissioners Sawatzke and Christine Husom voting against the approval to draw up a formal agreement. Kryzer said he did some research and could find nothing to back up that claim and that a simple majority will suffice. As it turned out, the final vote did have the 80 percent approval. It passed 4-1, with Sawatzke voting against it. He explained he doesn’t have a problem with the job the township has done, but felt the county had more expertise and resources to do the job. The resolution will be forwarded to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for final approval.
• Approved the purchase of panic buttons and bulletproof glass for the fourth floor of the county courthouse. The county received quotes for bulletproof glass, which ranged between $5,800 and $11,000. County Attorney Tom Kelly, stating his department was willing to contribute $4,500 from drug forfeiture money to defray the cost. Sawatzke asked if there has ever been an incident in the 160 years of the State of Minnesota and its 87 counties in which a courthouse shooting has taken place. Commissioner Mike Potter made a motion to accept the $5,800 bid. It passed 3-2, with Sawatzke and Charlie Borrell voting against it.
• Conducted a fees for service public hearing. The hearing dealt primarily with cost increases in the parks department for camping fees, as well as proposed increases in surveyor’s fees. Nobody from the public spoke for or against the issue and it passed unanimously.
• Received an update on the advancements made to the county’s website. Last month, the board started streaming board meetings and a web redesign is under way. The updates being made to the website will take five to six months to complete. The goal is to have a website more interactive with county residents in printing out county forms on-line and make the county website more user-friendly.
• Approved signatures on a grant application for the county to get funding for a handicapped voting booth at the county courthouse. The grant is provided through the Help America Vote Act, designed to get higher voter turnout.
• Rescheduled a building committee date from Dec. 18 to Dec. 17 due to a scheduling conflict. The meeting is now scheduled for 11 a.m. following the Dec. 17 board meeting.
Freelancer John Holler covers government and the Wright County Board of Commissioners.