Public hearings on government budgets and tax levies are often uneventful, follow a well-trod path and end without official action. Not so Tuesday.
Crow Wing County’s budget session had impassioned arguments for funding, decisions on thousands of dollars weighed against spending millions and ended with a flurry of motions that nearly needed a diagram to keep straight. The first hint of unexpected action came when Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom questioned funding of $31,500 for the Crow Wing County Historic Society. The appropriation wasn’t brought up in previous discussions to reduce funding. Commissioner Rosemary Franzen said it was easy to say they didn’t need the funding. Franzen said because she attends those meetings she knew how desperately those funds were needed.
When it came up that this was late in the game after months of budget talks and staff work, Nystrom said she never signed off on anything and was bringing it up tonight. Commissioner Paul Thiede reminded Nystrom he was accosted at great lengthy for coming in with budget changes at a late hour during a previous year.
“I don’t see any difference between that and this.” Thiede said.
Nystrom said he would have to bring that up. Board members were reminded the first order of business was to listen to the members of the public.
One of the speakers was DeAnn Barry, executive director for The Center, formerly known as the Lakes Area Senior Activity Center. Barry asked the board to reconsider The Center’s funding request. The Center hadn’t received funding from the county before but requested money for operations after the mill levy was reduced as property values declined. Staff previously noted The Center had a healthy savings account.
Barry said they have reserved to pay for unexpected costs such as the $6,000 pipe repair that turned into a $12,357 repair. She noted efforts to raise money in house and how The Center was a community benefit by helping seniors stay active, hosting free concerts in Gregory Park, making wooden toys for children and providing meeting rooms for other nonprofits at no charge or quietly subsidizing Meals on Wheels by not raising rates for a decade.
Nystrom said she’d be supporting The Center’s request, saying the group was not waiting for someone to pay their ways but was doing a lot to help themselves and giving back to the community. Nystrom suggested giving the former senior center $20,000. Board Chairman Doug Houge asked if that meant $10,000 for The Center in Brainerd and $5,000 each for senior centers in Pequot Lakes and Crosby. Nystrom said the other facilities hadn’t requested funding.
Commissioner Rosemary Franzen said she didn’t agree with providing financing if people don’t ask. Commissioner Phil Trusty, who previously spoke out in favor of helping the Crow Wing County Fair Association Board as it sought funding for capital improvements, said he was more inclined to match funds for projects and noted other board members weren’t in favor of a fair funding increase.
“They don’t do any thing to fundraise,” Franzen said. Trusty countered that both the seniors and the fair gain revenue from renting space. Franzen said the seniors work hard to help themselves all year compared to one week for the fair. Trusty said the fairgrounds are used all year. Nystrom said the fair board could generate money from an admission fee but doesn’t.
“They have to demonstrate something and I’m not saying anything about a lack of commitment on the fair board, but they haven’t galvanized their constituency,” Nystrom said.
Thiede said while the discussion was on the smaller amount the board hadn’t even talked about the $15 million in capital outlay set aside for a new Law Enforcement Center (LEC) when the money could be used to pay down the debt or for other projects. Even as he said he didn’t relish campaigning in the future with seniors saying he killed $20,000, Thiede said it needed to be placed in perspective. The LEC projected spending — from reserves, refinancing and by extending the debt for one year — won’t affect the levy.
Administrator Tim Houle said he thought of the $15 million as a placeholder with the board having flexibility about where it will go without the time pressure of deciding the levy.
“If you spend reserves, no matter what you want to spend your reserves on, you are impacting the budget,” Thiede said.
Trusty said he was satisfied with the levy but noted the spending tentatively set aside for the LEC could go to other uses.
“You want to spend $15 million in this county without touching the levy, let’s build some roads in this county,” Trusty said.
With the decision on the LEC put on hold for now, the board did take action Tuesday.
Nystrom moved to add $20,000 for The Center. Franzen seconded the motion. Then Thiede offered an amendment to take the $20,000 from the library funding. The county had budgeted $549,002 for the library, about $40,000 more than was required by the state. Nystrom serves as liaison to the library and has been a strong supporter. She again spoke up for the need for library services and the work the library was doing to hold down expenses, noting 90 percent of the electronic collection was checked out before the library even advertised it as an option. She said a poll would show support for both causes. Thiede said they were all difficult choices to which Nystrom responded that may be the only thing they agree upon. The board tied twice in its vote. Trusty and Nystrom opposed the motion to take the funding from the library, Franzen and Thiede approved. After a moment, Houge added his approval.
Nystrom then moved to take $1,500 from the Mississippi Headwaters Board (MHB) and give that to the senior center. Thiede is a strong supporter of the MHB and serves on its board. The motion died for lack of a second. Trusty suggested taking the other $20,000 left in the additional library funding and giving it to the fair. No one else responded favorably.
Then the board voted on the original motion of whether to fund the senior center. The vote was confusing enough in the first go around, it was set aside and attempted again. The result was another tie with Franzen and Nystrom in favor of the funding and Thiede and Trusty opposed. Houge settled the matter voting in favor of the funding for the seniors. When asked who would call the library to report the decision, Nystrom suggested Thiede have that task. Houle said staff would handle it. Thiede sat back in his chair with the bow of his glasses between his teeth and smiled, asking Nystrom to lighten up. She stared down at her iPad and didn’t respond.
Crow Wing County’s levy increased by a total of 4.79 percent from $33,169,882 in 2007 to $34,759,374 in 2013. Mike Carlson, county deputy auditor and finance director, said this increase equates to an annual increase of less than 1 percent per year for the six-year period.
“Crow Wing County historically has had one of the lowest tax rates in the state of Minnesota,” Carlson said. The county has a preliminary budget of about $80 million with a tax levy of $34.7 million, amounting to a .34 percent levy decrease from 2012. The board is expected to vote on the budget at its Dec. 11 budget meeting.