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County board approves 2.9 percent increase in tax levy

The Hubbard County Board set the 2018 final levy at $14,300,000 — a 2.9 percent increase from 2017.

The levy was approved after three rounds of voting.

In September, county commissioners approved a preliminary payable 2018 levy of $14,450,000, which was a 4.8 percent increase compared to last year.

Compared to neighboring counties, such Cass, Aitken, Beltrami, Crow Wing, Itasca, Morrison, Todd and Wadena, Hubbard County Auditor/Treasurer Kay Rave noted that Hubbard County's preliminary 2018 levy was the second lowest.

During budget discussions with department heads between September and November, the Hubbard County Board chiseled $150,000 from the preliminary levy. The agenda called for approving a $14,300,000 final levy.

County Commissioner Ed Smith balked at reducing the Road and Bridge levy by $200,000. Significant road projects need to get done, he said, suggesting that Road and Bridges be reduced in $50,000 increments over four years.

Smith made a motion to set the levy at $14,450,000. It failed 4-1, with only Smith in favor.

County Commissioner Dan Stacey stated he was "moderately comfortable" with the amount of reserves available, should the county need to dip into them. He said the board had spent a lot of time reviewing figures and he was satisfied with a $14,300,000 final levy.

"What I'm saying is, we've got the savings, so we'll be fine," Stacey said.

Board Chair Vern Massie said he sought more places to cut from the budget, evidently without success.

"The big number is with all these unions and labor. The county board used to set 0 percent on wages, but the unions, they'd all be walking. Outside factors, along with labor, take it out of our hands," he said. "Right or wrong, it's a reality we've got seven unions telling us what we're going to pay their people. It ends up costing us thousands of dollars to fight these unions."

"They're not sympathetic toward our cause at all," agreed Smith.

County Commissioner Char Christenson made a motion to set the final levy at $14,350,000.

Christenson, also concerned about the hit to Road and Bridges, said, "I agree that we need to lower the taxes because of the (transit) sales tax, but you have to give Road and Bridges time because those dollars cannot be implemented immediately."

The motion failed 3-2, with only Christenson and Cal Johannsen in favor.

Massie then made the motion to set the levy at $14,300,000. It passed 3-2, with Christenson and Smith opposed.

Rave reviewed 2018 budget revenues and expenses, which have steadily increased since 2013.

"We've seen quite a bit of growth in the county, whether staff or equipment or services," she said. "Our needs are growing."

The Hubbard County Sheriff's Office, Environmental Services Office and county attorney's office have all experienced increases in staff size, Rave said. The county is also forming an IT department within the next three to five years.

Rave explained that salaries and wages were a major factor in the 2018 budget, accounting for 3.9 percent of the 6.8 percent increase in expenses.

Technology upgrades are another factor.

The recommended final 2018 budget breaks down as follows:

• General revenue is projected at $15,104,104 with $15,081,170 in expenses.

• Road and Bridge revenue is $11,673,100 with $11,842,284 in expenses.

• Social Services revenue is $6,900,960 with $8,534,984 in expenses.

• Solid Waste revenue is $4,316,112 with $4,271,729 in expenses.

• Tax-forfeited land revenue is $2,538,909 with $2,502,939 in expenses.

Total revenue is $40,533,185 with total expenses of $42,333,105.

David Brooks, one of two residents who attended the Dec. 7 truth-in-taxation meeting, wondered why the county was budgeting a loss.

Rave explained that Social Services faces a projected deficit, "so would be using reserves of which we feel are adequate."

Brooks observed that the Solid Waste budget jumped roughly $1 million.

Solid Waste Administrator Jed Nordin explained that the increase was related to the new transfer station that will be built within the next year. The $1 million is the county's required matching funds, he said.

The board approved the budget, as recommended.

In related business, the county board did the following:

• Set the HRA levy at $170,000 and HRDC levy at $117,343.

• Approved the county attorney's salary of $106,300, based on a market comparison of surrounding counties, and his 2018 budget. The salary is lower than the previous county attorney's. Commissioners noted that the county attorney had saved the county in outside legal counsel fees.

• Approved the county sheriff's salary of $97,200 and his 2018 budget.

• Set county commissioner's salaries at $23,400 — a $700 increase.

• Set commissioner's per diem at $85 per day. This is the same as last year.