Crow Wing County commissioners adopted a 2013 budget and tax levy Tuesday but Administrator Tim Houle likened the process to the adage of two things not to watch — making laws or making sausage.
A marathon of amendments to amendments came during hours of discussion with enough twists and turns that commissioners repeatedly asked for clarifications on what exactly they were voting on or changed a vote after casting it. Staff needed a break to reconsider the numbers after Tuesday’s decisions made changes to the proposed budget.
The good news, Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom said, was even board members didn’t know what they were doing, making it clear there are no alliances, secret conversations or pre-determined outcomes. “This is what decision-making looks like,” Nystrom said, adding she was sorry it left staff scrambling at the last minute.
The final decision had commissioners voting to cut two proposed positions, slashing into the $15 million earmarked for a potential Law Enforcement Center building project and weighing once again the library needs against the senior center.
In the end, the board reduced the proposed tax levy by $21,832 for a total of $34,737,542 out of a $66,417,443 budget. But getting there couldn’t be confused with following anything like a straight line.
The county’s started the morning with a proposed 2013 tax levy of $34,759,374 or a .34 percent decrease from 2012.
■ Library or senior center
Appropriations were tackled first as representatives from the library and senior center continued to lobby the board for support. The board previously voted to take $20,000 from the Kitchigami Library and use those funds to fill a $20,000 first-time request in funding for The Center, formerly known as the Brainerd Lakes Area Senior Activity Center. The library funding for 2013 is $529,002, which is $20,000 more than the minimum funding required by the state.
Marian Ridge, Kitchigami Regional Library director, said the appropriations for the coming year represents a decline for three years in a row falling between amounts paid between 2007 and 2008. Ridge said the library eliminated its senior outreach and home-bound service to meet budget and is seeing increases in use. The county board’s decision means the library board will have its own tough decisions to decide what measures to take in response, Ridge said.
Several people spoke in favor of the library and its appeal to all ages, especially at a tough economic time when families are seeking library services after losing jobs and home Internet.
DeAnn Barry, the Center’s executive director, said they didn’t intend for their appropriation to be taken from another nonprofit. But as for stories, Barry said she has important ones as well such as a man whose friendships at the Center became a support group to re-engage him in social activities after he was widowed. Barry said they know their mission is growing. “We are just asking for some help along the way to meet that.”
Nystrom said the previous meeting set up a difficult choice between the library and seniors and put the board in an awkward position between two groups providing vital services. Nystrom asked her colleagues if they have been to the library and asked them to spend an hour there to see a portion of the 25,000 people with library cards.
Commissioner Paul Thiede said he wasn’t going to let Nystrom get away with implying if he didn’t vote in favor he was against supporting the library. The board was elected to make tough decisions, he said. In tough economic times, Thiede said they are charged with making decisions that aren’t necessarily popular with certain quarters of the electorate. Thiede said they were making choices with limited resources and he rejected it as being against the library or senior citizens.
Commissioner Rosemary Franzen said the economy is still in a rough place and the library was getting more than a half million dollars.
“I totally support the library,” Franzen said. “I also support the senior center.”
Nystrom’s moved to restore the $20,000 to the library. She said adding funding still produced a 2013 levy reduced compared to 2012. Thiede amended the motion to say if the money was restored it would come from the senior center.
“Here we go again,” said Chairman Doug Houge.
Houge said he was comfortable with helping both organizations, which still means giving more than the minimum to the library.
That motion to restore the library funding by using senior center appropriations failed with only Nystrom in support.
Commissioner Phil Trusty spoke of restoring the library funding, giving $20,000 to the seniors and establishing a matching fund of $20,000 to the Crow Wing County Fair for improvements.
After some confusion, the motion was boiled down to the matching funds for the fair and Nystrom withdrew a second, after which the motion died.
■ Law Enforcement Center
Inevitably, talk turned to the $15 million listed for the proposed new Law Enforcement Center (LEC) in the capital projects fund.
The LEC was proposed for funding from savings, refinancing and extending the debt for a year and savings from the 800 megahertz radio upgrade.
Houle said he thought of it more as a placeholder as there are multiple capital needs, including Highway 371 interchanges and Highway 115.
If a new LEC isn’t constructed, the county expects costs to re-roof the existing building, heating and air-condition fixes and for parking lot improvements, among others. Houle said the board has flexibility in spending and time before that issue is decided.
Franzen said she wasn’t comfortable leaving $15 million there as a placeholder for the LEC.
“That to me is not a placeholder,” Franzen said. “That is a specific project.”
Houle said the county could eliminate the capital levy but he equated it to paying the light bill from the savings account. Eventually, Houle said the savings will be gone and the levy will spike back up. The county, he said, is trying to have a planning process that doesn’t put taxpayers on a yo-yo.
“I just don’t think that’s prudent,” Houle said.
Finance Director Mike Carlson noted the LEC funding would not affect the levy until possibly 2015. But Carlson said clarity on the board’s priorities is needed going forward or the county could miss taking advantage of debt service refinancing in 2013 with historically low rates.
“I don’t think we have addressed the LEC in the depths we should have,” Nystrom said, adding she hopes to have that conversation in January. But leaving the $15 million earmarked for the LEC made her nervous, Nystrom said.
Franzen suggested taking out the $15 million and replacing it with $1 million to cover the remaining 800 megahertz radio costs and LEC remodeling, which the board supported.
Thiede said he had no problem marking the LEC for serious conversation in 2015, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t continue to talk about it.
“I’ve gotten an awful lot of phone calls and emails about the LEC,” Thiede said. “It’s a hot topic out there.”
“Something has to be done with the Law Enforcement Center but I think the general consensus is not this year or not in 2013,” Houge said. “We’re not turning our back on this project. It has to be the right time. ... People are still hurting out there. ...Things are still changing. I just wouldn’t feel comfortable going ahead with a $15 million project with all this uncertainty out there.”
Houle said there will never be a good time for a $15 million building project but at some point the long view has to be taken. Houle said never in his 18-year career has a financing package made such a major infrastructure investment without affecting the levy or issuing additional debt of any significance.
The board is able to make budget adjustments at any time but have a deadline to set the levy.
■ Proposed staff additions
Board members turned their attention to proposed staff additions, a senior accountant, a legal assistant and three with the sheriff’s department — a dispatcher, community service officer, and clerical staffer.
Sheriff’s office Lt. Dave Fischer said a dispatch position was left vacant to meet the budget but that turned out to be a bad idea, stressing staff and causing overtime. Sheriff Todd Dahl said they thought they could get by and have determined that dispatcher post needs to be filled.
Thiede wanted to eliminate all new positions except the one for finance and the dispatcher. Dahl was asked to make a pitch for the other two staff requests.
“We would never have asked for them if we didn’t feel we needed them,” Dahl said, adding he hoped the commissioners had enough trust in him to run his office without micromanaging. Nystrom asked if that meant Dahl didn’t want to tell her specifically about the position as was his prerogative.
Dahl said he’d be happy to discuss them, adding officers such as Fischer are needed elsewhere but are ferrying squad cars around and other services.
Trusty amended the motion to reduce the planned staffers to include the legal assistant. Nystrom seconded the motion.
Nystrom and Trusty supported it while Franzen and Thiede were opposed. Houge broke the tie by supporting the legal assistant noting it will go through the personnel committee. That prompted Franzen to change her vote to be in favor.
In the end, the board with Thiede opposed approved the accountant, the legal assistant, dispatcher and moving a facilities position from part time to full time.
Two positions, the community services officer and clerical staff at the sheriff’s office were not approved so a $20,000 grant was removed and $17,000 put back into overtime funding.
With the $21,832 net levy savings from not adding those two staff members, Nystrom said $20,000 could be available for the library, but no one made a motion to that effect.
“What if we were doing this at night?” Nystrom said of the effort to keep the motions and multiple amendments straight during the day before everyone was fuzzy.
“I hate to ask, but any more discussion?” Houge said.
There was none.
“Rush out of here before someone has another thought,” Nystrom told staff.
■ Consensus on praise
Through all the discussion the board had consensus on one topic. They praised the work of Carlson and Jason Rausch, budget and accounting analyst. Trusty spoke of his respect for their work and said the board has done a poor job of giving them direction.
“People in this county don’t know how lucky they are to have you two guys doing the numbers, I can tell you that,” Trusty said.
Houle said staff would be helped by hearing from the board on budget and levy changes earlier so they could be better prepared for the final meeting. It would have been preferable to have Tuesday’s discussion earlier, Houle said.
What’s lost in Tuesday’s lengthy five-hour discussion is the real story line of the three straight years of levy reductions, Houle said. A feat he said only a small handful of counties have been able to deliver.
And those budget constraints came while the county was making improvements in customer service and had resources to make capital improvements without issuing debt, Houle said.
The real story, Houle said, was an organization doing things faster, cheaper, better. “That’s the story I wish I was going to read tomorrow in the paper.”