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Wadena County rebuilding reserve in tough budget times

The difficult tasks of being a tax payer and county official during rough economic times were addressed at a public hearing Tuesday night when the community had an opportunity to discuss 2010 budget and levy information with commissioners and department heads.

The county has proposed an 11 percent reduction in the 2010 budget from 2009. It is proposing a 3.2 percent increase in property taxes collected in 2010.

Commissioner Ralph Miller said he voted for the proposed 3.2 percent increase as an attempt to reestablish some sort of a county reserve. The state auditor was very critical last December of Wadena County and its lack of a reserve, he said.

"The 3.2 percent ... is nothing more than an increase at the county level to make up for the county program aid that had been reduced by the state," Miller said.

The final tax increase has not been approved yet, he said. That will happen before December ends.

This is the only opportunity for a special levy for the 2008 and 2009 unallotment of $233,000, said Commissioner Bill Stearns. It will not appear in next year's levy. It's a one time shot to try and build the reserve, he said.

Stearns explained that the county has an undesignated general fund reserve and unspent money rolls over from the previous year into that. The county has very little in its reserves, Stearns said. It's been going down the last six years.

Auditor/ Treasurer Char West said all counties are required to cover six months of operations in their general funds. State money and taxes come in at the end of the year and then the county doesn't get any more until the end of May, she said. Wadena County is supposed to have about $1.2 million in its reserve, but at the end of 2008 only had around $25,000.

In addition to building its reserves, the county is trying to make up for state and grants funds that have been taken away, pay its bills and take care of the tax payers and its employees, West said. The board is trying to do the best it can.

Unallotments of state money, grants and the financial hit the county took with South Country Health Alliance are affecting the county and will continue to do so in the future, according to West.

Troy Barrett, Staples, noted that the county had trimmed the budget back by around $2 million.

"Is this the best you can do?" he asked. "That's what this is all about. Is this the best you can do."

Stearns said all county employees took a zero percent increase for 2009 and negotiations are going on for next year.

Barrett said he hadn't had a raise in two and half years and others in the audience probably hadn't either.

"They're living on us, plus we're trying to live on us," he said.

Commissioner Lane Waldahl said a lot of employees know that people in the county aren't getting raises either. They've been going out of their way to help, he said.

West said the hard part is counties are probably the government entity most affected by mandates. Wadena County, with its lower tax base and lower population, still has to provide the same services as a larger county like Otter Tail, she said.

Barrett said county officials need to take the economic situation of residents into consideration and he knew a lot of them did. He even said he would commend the social department this year for lowering its budget.

Human services director Paul Sailer said with a smile that he thought this was the first compliment for his department in 10 years.

Some in attendance had their individual tax statements in hand for questions, but Stearns explained that this meeting is intended for the budget and levy information presented. Questions about specific tax valuations should be addressed to the assessor's office, he said.

Assessor Lee Brekke said he is working on the 2010 values for taxes payable in 2011 right now.