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County faces tough budget decisions

Carice Golberg Cummins waits on customer Becky Bistodeau at the assessor's office Thursday. County employees will all get 3 percent raises, but those will have to be offset by departmental cuts to achieve a zero-growth budget. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Hubbard County government will have another meager year in 2011.

"Why are we growing government when we're all going broke?" asked board chair Lyle Robinson.

Department heads will be given last year's figures to work with.

But several factors complicate their budgeting tasks.

Under a union contract employees will get 3 percent raises. The board has voted to treat non-union employees the same so all the 3 percent raises will have to be offset within each department by cuts.

Employees with longevity also receive "step" bonuses as they rise higher in the ranks of their departments.

Certain fixed costs have also risen such as postage, auditor Pam Heeren told the board. "We send out 18,000 mailings two or three times a year so that two cents (rise in postage fees) adds up," she said.

But ominous signs are on the horizon. Robinson said it would be politically unwise to tax residents while socking money into reserves, so the county will likely not put money aside for the proverbial rainy day.

And the suggestion to possibly spend down some of the county's reserves, typically around $10-$11 million, was met with resistance.

"You hate to start that or it's a circle of death," Robinson objected.

The taxable valuation of Hubbard County property has declined $1.8 million over the past year.

"That's based on what I have seen in the market conditions in the county from sales in October '08 through September '09," said county assessor Bob Hansen.

"And so we ended up reducing property values on not necessarily all properties but on a significant number of properties to reflect those market conditions."

And that means spreading the tax burden.

"Unless budgets are reduced, the same amount of money is going to be needed and it's going to have to come from the tax base so presumably if budgets are the same or higher we're going to need an equal amount of tax or more tax from a lower tax base," Hansen said.

"It doesn't make up the $1.8 million, it's just the tax extension rate will be higher for everybody."

Robinson and board member Cal Johannsen were going to meet with Heeren after the board meeting to see if it was possible for another zero-growth budget to work.

The board also asked Heeren to check out a "paperless pay system" that would eventually save time getting the payroll out, but present some issues for employees.

Solid waste attendants don't have access to computers, so they would not be able to verify deposits, vacation time used or other personnel information that would be on an intranet system accessible to employees only.

And some employees have security concerns about having their personal information out in cyberspace.

Currently taxpayers can pay online and various fees can be billed over the Internet.

"When I write you a check you have my account number," Robinson noted. "We have to be progressive. You can't reinvent government by doing things the same way."

"It's a new world," said commissioner Dick Devine. "We have to go that way."

In other business, the board:

• Continued to grapple with the taxing and assessment software program it voted to dump earlier this year after the program wouldn't work.

The county is contemplating suing Michigan-based Manatron, Inc. to recoup the $200,000 the county invested in the software.

What sparked the most recent discussion was an overdue bill from Minnesota Counties Computer Cooperative, the consortium that purchased the software. MCCC sent the $18,401.26 bill with interest accruing and the threat of tacking on attorneys' fees.

"Write a letter that you stole $200,000 from us" because the program "wasn't worth a hoot," Robinson instructed Heeren.

"I'd rather you write that letter," Heeren responded. The consortium threatened to suspend Hubbard County's voting rights.

"We haven't had a voice the last couple years," Robinson said.

"We are members of MCCC," said county assessor Bob Hansen. "We are under a contract and we owe this. We chose not to pay because of the circumstances."

But Hansen said MCCC is paying Manatron because of the contractual arrangement.

"Three counties haven't paid. We are one," Hansen said.

"I don't think MCCC has represented us well in this deal," commissioner Cal Johannsen said.

Hubbard County paid thousands of dollars to bring in outside help to implement the software. That education benefited other counties struggling with the same issues.

"Manatron got away with a huge swindle," said Devine angrily. "Let's just pay the bill and be done with it."

The board voted 3-2 to pay the bill, with Robinson and assistant chair Don Carlson voting against it.

"Tell them we're disappointed with them," Robinson suggested of a letter to MCCC included in the payment.

"How Manatron got away with that I don't know," Devine fumed.

Manatron spokeswoman Rachel Bryant did not return a phone call for comment by the time the Enterprise went to press.

Because Hubbard County is part of MCCC, it would have to essentially sue itself to recover the funds.

• Abated $9,890 of taxes to Park Rapids Area Health Care, LLC. for taxes imposed on the old Innovis Clinic building, which was demolished in March 2009.

The building was vacated on December 2008 as employees moved into new quarters.

Commissioners openly questioned, "how we handle anyone else that has a building they don't use."

"If you have a building on Jan. 1 you pay taxes on it," Robinson said.

"We don't want to be a government that charges people for an unused building just because we don't want to look bad," said commissioner Dick Devine in voting for the abatement.

Hansen explained that the oversight was his office's and urged commissioners to abate the taxes.

When buildings have a "functional obsolescence" such as a second home that sits abandoned on a property, Hansen said a tax discount is warranted.

"We should have caught it," he apologized.

• Gave final approval to a prescription drug collection program that is aimed at taking unused prescription medications out of circulation and out of the reach of youth.

The "Take it to the Box" program will be underwritten by the Hubbard County Youth Drug and Alcohol Task Force, which will launch a public awareness campaign.

The Task Force received a $5,000 grant that will sustain the program for the next few years. A locked vault will be installed in the Hubbard County Law Enforcement Center as a drop-off point for unused medications. Eventually those medications will be transported to a disposal site out of state.

• Approved a donation from Laporte-Benedict Lions Club of $260.00 for the K-9 program, proceeds from a bake sale at the recently held Laporte Days.

"We've always had great support from Laporte for the K-9 program even back when I was a K-9 officer," Sheriff Frank Homer told the board.

• Will redraft the job description for Deb Thompson, the county's assistant coordinator, and send it to a points committee for salary review.

The board stripped Coordinator Jack Paul of those duties last month as part of a disciplinary process that resulted in Paul's suspension for the month of August.

The board appointed Thompson the official board clerk, making her responsible for attending and recording the minutes of the meetings, publishing those minutes and being in charge of what goes on the agenda.

Because of those added responsibilities, Thompson may earn more and Paul less when the committee reviews each position.

Paul will no longer attend board meetings and will staff the office during those times.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

(218) 732-3364
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