By Sarah Smith
Hubbard County set its final general levy at $12.2 million Tuesday, shaving $200,000 off its preliminary estimate.
That’s still more than the 2013 levy of $11.85 million, but the county is in good financial shape. The increases, said Auditor Pam Heeren, came in the form of a $35,000 contribution to fighting Aquatic Invasive Species, a $5,000 raise to the county’s historical society, doubling the $5,000 the nonprofit gets, $50,000 for a pay equity study and the leftovers, around $74,000, to purchase new computers.
A $160,000 request by Sheriff Cory Aukes for four new squad cars wasn’t in the budget but seemed to take some commissioners by surprise.
But the county, in the past few years, has another designated fund – called the undesignated fund – for major purchases such as computers, cars and equipment. Those expenses used to come out of each department’s budget.
But the sheriff and other department heads questioned the fairness of those items, especially since law enforcement needs new squad cars annually.
“That doesn’t mean to say the board will approve it,” Heeren said. It’s just in that designated - undesignated fund.”
Aukes must seek board approval when he needs those vehicles and if there’s money to buy them, the board likely will approve the expense.
If department heads are frugal, they could build up the county’s reserve fund by $200,000 at year’s end, Heeren said.
The county is spending $2 million of its reserve fund for the courthouse addition, currently under construction.
The board also set the county attorney’s salary at $103,900 and the sheriff’s salary at $87,100.
The county also approved a 2.5 percent increase in wages for county employees, which are paid based on a compensation grid.
And it has committed $1.5 million to the upcoming renovation of the nursing home at Heritage Living Center. That work will begin in the spring of 2014.
Until a new grid is established in the pay equity study, all future raises are curtailed until a new classification system is in place.
The county also set the HRA (Housing and Redevelopment Authority) levy at $230,000. It has been at that amount for the past few years.
In other business, the county:
n Raised its Solid Waste rate 4 percent, not the 8 percent interim superrintendent Jed Nordin had originally asked for.
Solid Waste has been teetering on the brink of financial solvency for several years and needs to start a fund for the big-ticket items that will need repairs in the future.
The county’s solid waste is hauled to a landfill in Gwinner, N.D. Those costs rise annually.
As part of the Solid Waste budget, the council voted to pay the Developmental Achievement Center a flat fee of $400,000 in 2014. The DAC handles all of the county recycling and Nordin said the agency has done a good job.
The county would take 25 percent of the profits from recyclables with the DAC getting 75 percent of the revenues.
In the past the county paid a per ton rate for recycling, but the DAC asked that it be placed on more solid footing after it claimed to have lost money last year.
The tonnage rate was subject to the swings of market forces, making budgeting and spending difficult for the DAC and its 77 clients, director Ed Ranson said.
But commissioner Greg Larson questioned the math.
“There’s two scenarios,” he said. “We think he’s making money and he (Ranson) says he isn’t. The scenarios aren’t consistent with each other.”
“If we did it (recycling) totally on our own we’d save money,” commissioner Kathy Grell said. “But we want to ensure the DAC does well.”
“That’s what’s best for the county,” Nordin said.
The new formula also caps the county’s contribution to recycling at a steady rate. The county has agreed to subsidize the DAC partly out of humanitarian reasons and partly because recycling is mandated under state law.
“I look at it as a cost savings to the county,” Nordin said.
n Learned that buildings and grounds maintenance supervisor Lee Gwiazdon plans to retire sometime this winter.
The youthful looking man said, “It was a tough decision but I’m planning my retirement for February 2014. I’ve spent half my lifetime here at this address.”
“You don’t want to stay through the construction?” board chair Cal Johannsen said.
Gwiazdon hesitated. He said the construction manager, Contegrity Group, has been a pleasure to work with and he will miss them.
“They are saving the taxpayers money,” he said.