by CHRIS ROGERS
There may be yet another split vote to raise Winona County’s property tax levy this fall. The County Board will take a formal vote to set the county’s preliminary levy next Tuesday, and at a meeting last week, commissioners expressed familiar, divergent opinions on the issue.
In 2015 and 2016, the County Board voted 3-2 to increase the property tax levy, with commissioners Marie Kovecsi, Jim Pomeroy, and Greg Olson voting for the increase and commissioners Steve Jacob and Marcia Ward dissenting. In an interview late last month, Jacob said this might be the year that county finances finally persuade him to support a tax increase. “I think we’ll have to see some of that this year. That’s not lost on me,” he stated, adding, “I don’t want to be guilty of voting against any tax increase and benefitting from Jim, Marie, and Greg carrying the water.” However, at the last Tuesday’s board meeting, Jacob indicated he would likely oppose a tax increase.
Much of the meeting’s discussion focused on how the Minnesota state government has cut funding for programs the state requires counties to provide, including child protection. The state legislature is balancing its budget on the backs of county taxpayers and making county governments look like the bad guys by putting them in a position where they are forced to raise taxes, Winona County commissioners stated. The commissioners seriously discussed listing taxes for such state-mandated programs as a separate line item on citizens’ annual tax statements. County staff were not sure that would be permissible, but the county might include a letter with tax statements discussing what portion of tax hikes are the state’s fault.
Ward took two of the County Board’s discussions — how low the reserve funds could acceptably go and how to convince the state government to take over welfare programs from counties — to another level. “Maybe it [the county fund balance] gets so low, you say, ‘State of Minnesota, you have to take this back.’ You have to get their attention. Maybe a county goes bankrupt,” she said.
Regardless of whose is to blame for the deficit, the County Board must vote to set the preliminary 2018 budget and tax levy this month. “I can’t vote to increase Winona County’s property tax levy,” Jacob said at the meeting. “If there’s some way to put a division between how the state is affecting the levy and Winona County — I could hold the state accountable for their portion … I can’t vote for a county increase.”
Ward echoed her stance from prior years: because many constituents in her district are either seniors on fixed incomes or farmers losing money on low commodity prices, she cannot stomach a tax levy increase. “I don’t know how I can ask my property taxpayers to pay more when their bottom line — they are literally losing money,” she said.
County administrator Ken Fritz outlined the county’s financial position. By raising the levy six percent and minimizing investments in equipment and buildings, the county could make up part of the $3-million deficit in its 2018 budget, but even then, the remaining deficit would drain county reserve funds beneath the minimum level recommended by national experts and currently required by County Board policy. The county could cut investments in equipment even more, but, Fritz said, the need to replace aging highway department plow trucks and sheriff’s office patrol cars will only be more urgent next year. “It’s still kicking the can down the road,” he said.
“I really don’t want to set up future boards with turning over a mess, so I would support a tax increase,” Pomeroy stated. “We are actually cutting capital [investments] and everything else while we’re doing that, so I’m in favor of that.”
For her part, Kovecsi seemed more concerned about serving the community’s needs than keeping taxes down. “I’d like to think we vote for the services as they’re needed. Until we can figure out how to fund them better, we still have to vote for the services as they’re needed,” she told her colleagues.