The committee meeting, already scheduled to give organizations an opportunity to make their case for funding, came after the board voted 4-1 earlier this month against increasing appropriation for 2014. Commissioner Paul Koering brought that resolution to the board. Commissioner Doug Houge was the sole vote against.
Several organizations took the opportunity to tell commissioners what they do for the community and why an increase was requested, at times beseeching commissioners to reconsider the decision regarding funding.
Koering said the organizations did great work but he questioned whether it was the core responsibility of government to fund them as they focused on spending needs for safety and roads.
“I don’t think it’s an either or,” said Sheila Haverkamp, Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp. executive director. “I think you have to think of economic development as an investment to try to help people who live here and call it home.”
Haverkamp said residents with jobs are not going to need the same level of county services for assistance. She pointed to work BLAEDC did with LINDAR in Baxter to expand and with Magnum Machining in Deerwood to expand here instead of Mexico. Houge said those businesses collectively employ hundreds of workers who own homes, buy vehicles and stop at area stores. Houge said the county funding was a minimal investment for a big long-term investment that benefits the public.
Koering said one of the best things government can do to help business is to try not to take as many tax dollars. Koering said if everyone comes in with a 2 or 3 percent request, along with the cities and school districts, the increases rise to 6-8 percent.
“I’m just saying we cannot sustain this,” Koering said. “We need to try to make do with what we have.”
Jeff Wig, airport manager, said diesel fuel prices have risen dramatically from $1.67 per gallon in 2009 to $3.47 per gallon currently. The airport requested a funding increase of $3,140 or 2.6 percent for 2014.
Tom Jay, transit coordinator for the bus service, said the three buses provide 6,000 hours of public transit. There are zero increases for drivers wages for 2014. Jay said they could live without an increase and if it looks as though they are in trouble mid-year could look at a fare increase. Right now riders pay $2.50 each way to ride the bus.
Jessica Holmvig, Cuyuna Lakes Chamber executive director, and Todd Craven, board vice president, spoke of the benefits the chamber is bringing through events and promotions of area attractions such as the mountain bike trails as bringing added attention to the region on a national level. Koering quizzed Craven, who owns antique businesses in Crosby, about balancing tax increases against funding requests and how many antiques he’d have to sell. Craven said he was paying a lot of taxes in his mind on buildings declining in value, but said what the chamber can accomplish with the money makes up for extra funding request on the taxes. Craven said most towns Crosby’s size are blowing away and Crosby is working to build on its vitality. Houge noted three years ago there were no events and businesses were closing. Three years later there are events all year and tourism dollars coming into the area.
“This is a minimal amount of money for the investment,” Houge said.
Thiede questioned why they weren’t a part of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber the way other cities have. Craven said when that was brought up the Brainerd chamber nicely told them they were not big enough or important enough so they’ve worked hard to change that.
DeAnn Barry, executive director at The Center, thanked the board for gap funding last year and noted a number of projects they were able to complete. She said The Center raises 66 percent of its own budget, depends heavily on volunteers and gives back to the community. Bob Schricker, Center vice president, said 19.6 percent of residents in the county are older than 65 and The Center provides a hidden value as residents are able to stay active socially, physically and mentally translating to older people staying in their own homes longer at a savings to the county that is hard to put a dollar value on.
Koering said he thought it was a one-time funding for The Center last year. Barry said it was never intended to be one year but to fill a funding gap.
Commissioner Rosemary Franzen said if some people didn’t have The Center as an option they would be in assisted living. Koering said he agreed The Center was doing great things, but so was the soup kitchen, the Salvation Army and other senior centers.
“Where do you stop?” Koering said.
During the meeting, the board considered a staff proposal by facilities director Reid Thiesse to cancel a contract with Honeywell for its heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment maintenance and hire a staff member to do the work instead. The Honeywell contract would cost $252,000 in 2014. Hiring a HVAC technician at $45,000 with benefits amounting to $68,000 for the position could save $50,000 a year for the next two years.
At the end of the session, Chairwoman Rachel Reabe Nystrom said in the past board members have come up with budget changes at the last hour and she hoped they would come forward before the Dec. 12 meeting out of respect for other board members and staff.
Koering said he didn’t really like what happened last year.
“I promise you right now I’m not going to spring anything on you because I don’t want anything sprung on me,” Koering said.
County Auditor-Treasurer Laureen Borden said it would be good to have everything together at meetings in November and not wait until Dec. 12. Thiede said he felt a bit like he was having a finger pointed at him, but said raising an issue at an inopportune time for some was an opportune time for others.
“I’m not willing to give that up,” he said.