by CHRIS ROGERS
In a 3-2 vote last week, the Winona County Board approved its largest tax increase in years, a six-percent hike in the county’s property tax levy. Altogether the county will collect $17.5 million from local property owners to pay for snow plowing, foster care, law enforcement, and more.
In meetings and interviews throughout the budgeting process, commissioner Greg Olson said that many of his constituents understood the need for modest tax increases and that there was no “grand solution” to the county’s nearly $2-million deficit without cutting popular programs and laying off staff. Olson just won an election with the platform that slight tax hikes are necessary to fund county services.
Conversely, commissioner Steve Jacob just won an election with a platform to keep taxes down.
He and fellow rural commissioner Marcia Ward voted against the tax hike. “My constituent base is not making any money,” Ward stated, explaining that many of the people in her district either depend on Social Security checks that are not getting any bigger or are farmers experiencing a tough year for milk and crop prices.
Wiscoy Township sheep farmer Kelly O’Neill was one of only three people who spoke at a public hearing on the tax increase earlier last month. Winona County farmers cannot afford continued tax increases, he said. O’Neill added that he has witnessed “gross inefficiency” in the operations of the county department that most affects his life, the highway department. He told the board, “I would just strongly encourage you, beseech you … to do everything in your power to reduce the increases to the extent that is doable.”
Farmers and fixed-income earners have tightened their belts and this tax increase will take more out of their household budgets, Ward stated last week. The county ought to do more belt tightening itself instead of raising taxes, she argued.
If Ward wants to avoid tax increases, she should have a plan for how to do that, Olson said at meetings earlier this fall. He responded to Ward last Tuesday night: “Much of our levy [goes] toward employee salaries.” The County Board knows that attracting and retaining good county employees is a challenge when other similar counties pay more, and the County Board just approved raises for staff for that reason, Olson stated. “We can’t do one without the other,” he said of wage and tax increases. The money has to come from somewhere, and the county cannot rely on its reserves any longer, Olson argued. “I think we’ve done a great job of making a very effective and efficient government here,” he added.
“It is not lost on me that revenues are an issue,” Jacob said, acknowledging that the county cannot continue to balance its budget with cuts and reserve spending alone. Jacob explained that is why he supported a new half-cent sales tax for road repair and a fee hike for the county’s recycling program. Jacob argued that by supporting those revenue increases along with initiatives that could seriously reduce the deficit, such as consolidating county buildings, he had championed workable financial solutions to keep taxes down. “I’m not supportive of a six percent increase at this time,” he said.
This tax increase and a 3.5 percent hike last year come after several years of flat to declining tax levies for Winona County. Those tax-hike-free years came after the County Board pursued policies to reduce staff and after the county spent down its reserves on the heels of Winona Post investigations that revealed the county had collected several million dollars more than needed and amassed large reserves. Next year’s budget combines a roughly $900,000 tax levy increase with $1 million in reserve spending to balance a nearly $2 million deficit. County staff estimate that at the end of 2017 that spending will bring county coffers down to an appropriate level — deep enough to cover cash-flow needs, but not unnecessarily large — as defined by board policy and state recommendations.