The Chisago County Board is proposing to reduce the 2013 local property tax levy by about $270,000. Sept. 5 the commissioners’ vote was 3-2 to adopt the preliminary levy at $31,397,021. The entire county operating budget is $51.7 million but revenues from outside sources, not generated through the local property tax levy, go into this. Opposing the preliminary levy were Mike Robinson and Rick Greene. Robinson argued for adding $130,000 to the total to beef-up Contingency, which had been raided in votes leading up to adopting the levy. As a line item, “Contingency” is still at $515,000, but its funding level at the start of this discussion was over $600,000. The Board set Wednesday, December 5 at 6 p.m. for the hearing where officials go over the early levy numbers for the public. Who’s on the list The County Board went through the list of “partners” providing non-mandated services that have gotten taxpayer funding over the years.
Commissioners looked at needs for government center security and rejected a plan to add an assistant county engineer before acting on a preliminary levy. There were motions made filling in funding cuts brought forward by County Administrator Bruce Messelt, as recommended by the budget subcommittee. The Board voted one-by-one, adding back some partner funding proposed to be cut, while agreeing on other budget cuts. The county’s Historical Society, for example, was earmarked to be cut by $1,300 for 2013, but this was shifted out of Contingency and the organization will get what it got in 2012--$27,000. The 4H and Extension programming are proposed to lose about 10 percent and are at $102,625 in 2013 under the preliminary levy vote. The Agricultural Society (runs the county fair) will get $13,050 which was a 10 percent reduction from what it usually gets. But this is a 100 percent increase from the initial budget scenario eliminating funding in 2013. The Ag Society funding was shifted out of Contingency, on a 5-0 vote. There was a 3-2 vote denying funding to the “senior center” line item. Commissioner Robinson motioned to fund it at the historic $30,000, but it was defeated by Commissioners Montzka, McMahon and Greene. The $30,000 was described as basically the county share of salary for a coordinator. Commissioner George McMahon said he has concerns because there’s no county oversight and he is unsure what the county gets for its money. County administrator Messelt sent letters weeks ago to budgeted partners informing them of potential reductions in county funding, and asked for financial information in advance of this levy discussion. The written response from the senior center coordinator contained nothing about finances. The main concern connected to the senior center is to ensure federal and non-profit nutrition programs serving homebound people and congregate dining out of this North Branch facility don’t get thrown off-stride.
Commissioner Rick Greene said the Central MN Council on Aging has told him the meals program will continue to function and if necessary will rent a new site for kitchen/food prep needs. Commissioner Ben Montzka commented that the county needs to put money where “we are mandated to put it,” and paying staff affiliated with a non-profit (the center’s owner is Ecumen) isn’t something he supports. “There’s funding streams to help non-profits... if they seek it out,” Montzka stressed. Closer to home-- the levy also supports making some government center security improvements through adding a bailiff-type post. The commissioners did not support adding an administrative assistant position, who would staff the front lobby desk. The commissioners did support, on a split vote, investigating sharing a planner employee with the City of North Branch. The tentative concept is to jointly hire a planner, which would cost the county about $45,000. Commissioners Lora Walker and Robinson voted no. Walker commented that for the city this is a position that’s been on their payroll (North Branch’s planning and zoning official Al Cottingham left just weeks ago); but Chisago County hasn’t funded a land use planner position for a few years. The $45,000 was shifted for this out of Contingency.
The news that the county is seeing a 16 percent increase next year in insurance premiums was a disappointment at the meeting. Administrator Messelt said he just got word from the insurer. Wage talks are continuing with several county employee labor unions. The announced healthcare premium increase could eat up $320,000, or basically what was penciled in as a Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) wage hike. In one more expense--the Board okayed about $50,000 to tackle building damages resulting from flooding, after failure of a rooftop chiller unit over Labor Day weekend. Damages were the worst on the south side of the building and throughout the upper floor judicial corridor. Messelt said wallcoverings, carpet, ceiling panels and other “emergency” repairs must be done. Equipment replacement will have built-in redundancies to protect against chiller failure. (This unit actually malfunctioned August 1 too.) The commissioners were advised that moving forward and paying for the work, in no way hurts the county’s on-going claims review with the property insurer. The public hearing was held allowing the Board to adopt a Tax Abatement agreement for WineHaven winery.
The assistance okayed 5-0 by the commissioners helps the business owners develop a 7,900 square foot event center, with a future valuation of $421,000-- on an acre off Karmel Ave., north of Hwy. 8. Criteria to qualify requires generating employment and the project will bring in six new fulltime positions and 12 new part time jobs. There are nine people employed at WineHaven now. A portion of property tax from the new value of the center will be captured for seven years, for a total of about $32,000 in county tax receipts being put back into project costs. The County Board also acknowledged receipt of three sets of donations...the state Dept. of Public Safety gave the county “leftover” radios and batteries valued at $34,000 that are compatible with the newly-enhanced communications network. The county parks department received $2,500 from Dennis Frandsen. And, the Project Lifesaver program, an electronic tracking network available through the sheriff’s office for people with potential to wander, received $1,000 from North Branch Lions.