by CHRIS ROGERS
In a split vote last Thursday, the Winona County Board raised next year’s property tax levy by 5.5 percent. The new levy is expected to increase annual taxes on a $100,000 home by $15.50 while county taxes on a $1-million farm are projected to increase by $115.50. Commissioners Marie Kovecsi, Greg Olson, and Jim Pomeroy supported the increase; commissioners Steve Jacob and Marcia Ward voted against it.
“While it’s not a perfect budget, it does represent the best we could come up with this year,” Kovecsi stated.
Next year’s 5.5-percent tax hike follows an identical hike in 2018 and a six-percent increase in 2017, though because of several years of flat to negative tax increases in the early 2010s and late 2000s, the county’s total levy increase over the last decade is just four percent. Kovecsi, Olson, Pomeroy, and commissioner-elect Chris Meyer — who will replace Pomeroy — argued that in the larger picture, Winona County has done a great job of keeping taxes down and that next year’s increase is necessary to keep basic government services running. Winona County has experienced significant increases in the cost of state-mandated social services it must provide, including foster care and mental health care. Pointing to the weak farm economy, Ward argued that her constituents cannot afford any increase and Jacob lobbied his colleagues to make more aggressive budget cuts and reduce taxes.
Jacob proposed cutting county contributions to local nonprofits, such as a SEMCAC program that provides meals to senior citizens, and slashing county programs that would require laying off staff, such as the county water planner, who works on water-quality improvement efforts. In September, when the County Board set its preliminary tax levy increase for 2019 at 5.5 percent, Pomeroy and Kovecsi pledged to look hard for budget cuts that could reduce the tax hike before it was finalized in December. “We are all committed to looking at it seriously and working continuously,” Kovecsi said of reducing the tax hike. “I don’t know that it does any harm right now to go with the 5.5 [percent] given that we’ll all work to get to a better level,” Pomeroy stated. Ultimately, Kovecsi, Olson, and Pomeroy opposed the cuts Jacob suggested and supported increasing funding for criminal justice programs, including Winona County Treatment Court (formerly drug court) and the jail intake worker, an employee who helps minimize the jail population by screening defendants for risk factors and making statistics-based bail bond recommendations. Without funding programs such as treatment court that help repeat offenders and parents combat addiction, the county would be faced with higher costs downstream for incarceration and child protection, they argued.
Even with the new tax increase, Winona County will be tapping its reserves next year. The 2019 budget includes a $418,294 operating deficit that will reduce the county’s reserve funds.
“I don’t accept that going forward we’re going to have to [increase taxes at a rate] twice of what inflation is, and we’re just going to have to accept it because that’s our destiny,” Hillsdale Township Chair Michael Flynn told the County Board during a public hearing on its tax levy earlier this month. “As a taxpayer all I hear is, ‘State mandates — we’re short, and we’re going to need more money,’” he continued. “I don’t see much improvement in sight, and that concerns me. I think we need to look deeper,” Flynn added.
The County Board talks about state mandates all the time because it is a big deal, Pomeroy responded. The rising cost of foster care placements and other state mandates have wiped out efficiencies and savings the county has found, he continued. “The state has more influence over our local budget than we do,” Pomeroy stated. Jacob and Ward agreed. Right now, Governor-elect Tim Walz is getting excited about how to spend the state’s supposed $1.5-billion surplus, but the surplus only exists because the state shortchanged counties on funding for social services, Ward argued. “[State legislators] have concocted a way to put their funding shortage on your property taxes,” Jacob told Flynn.
“And you’re saying that the rest of the county departments are as lean and mean as they could possibly be?” Flynn asked the County Board. There was a pause. “No. I won’t say that,” Ward responded.
The county is expecting future savings from getting rid of its Main Street office building in Winona, the Winona County Government Center, and consolidating departments into other county buildings. However, there are also major expenses on the horizon for Winona County, most notably, coming up with a solution for its state-condemned jail. Even if the county opts not to build a multi-million-dollar new jail, the cost of outsourcing inmates and providing a state-approved facility that can ship out inmates and receive them for court is likely to drive up local taxes in the future.