by CHRIS ROGERS
The Winona County Board may consider laying off county employees to reduce property taxes next year. At the same time, a majority of County Board members supported using local tax dollars to preserve criminal justice reform programs.
Yesterday, the Winona County Board tentatively agreed to increase the county’s preliminary 2019 property tax levy by four percent over the current levy. The preliminary levy sets the ceiling for next year’s property tax increase, and County Board members are hopeful they may be able to reduce the tax hike even further before setting a final levy in December. At commissioner Steve Jacob’s suggestion, the board agreed to discuss later this fall Jacob’s ideas for cutting programs and laying off employees in order to reduce the final tax hike.
With the agricultural economy struggling, Jacob said his constituents do not want to see their taxes go up again. “I’ve got to face these people,” Jacob told his fellow board members.
Jacob’s list of potential cuts includes eliminating the county’s assistant veterans service officer position; privatizing the driver’s license center; cutting back hours and staffing at the county’s household hazardous waste disposal center; eliminating the county’s water planner; combining the county’s building maintenance department with the highway department; and cutting funding for the Winona County Historical Society, SEMCAC, local libraries, Winona County Restorative Justice, and other nonprofits. Jacob threw out these proposed cuts toward the end of a nearly five-hour-long meeting, and it is unclear exactly how much savings they would generate.
It is also unclear whether other County Board members will agree to the cuts. Jacob described the cuts as “unpalatable” and “uncomfortable” and seemed to think that the majority of board members would not be willing to seriously discuss them. Commissioner Greg Olson may have surprised him. “I would be open to that discussion. I mean, I think we should,” Olson stated. Other board members did not stand in the way, and now the County Board plans to discuss the potential cuts in October and November.
The County Board has not discussed laying off staff since 2014, when Duane Hebert was the county administrator and former commissioner Wayne Valentine was on the board. Even then, the board ultimately shied away from layoffs. Since then, the cost of providing services that state law requires the county to provide has increased while, in many cases, state lawmakers have not increased funding to counties for those services.
Going into Tuesday’s meeting the County Board faced a $1.7-million deficit in its 2019 budget. It would require a nine-percent increase in tax levy to balance that deficit. A four-percent levy increase would bring that deficit down to $1 million. If the County Board does not agree to Jacob’s cuts or if the cuts do not save as much money as Jacob hopes they will, the board may be forced to drain reserves to cover the $1-million deficit. Several county leaders were planning on using some amount of reserves to balance next year’s budget, saying the county still has enough money in the bank to do that without running out of cash. Winona County Finance Director Pat Moga warned the board that if the county goes over-budget next year — as it historically has — the county’s actual spending in 2019 may drain reserves even more than board members are planning.
At the same meeting, the County Board heard from several department heads requesting additional staff. There appeared to be a narrow majority of board members — Kovecsi, Olson, and Pomeroy — who supported spending an additional $104,000 next year to keep three criminal justice programs alive: the Winona County Drug Court, the CARE Program, and the county’s jail intake worker. All three programs help reduce the jail population, and grant funding for the CARE coordinator position and jail intake worker run out next year. If Winona County did not have these programs, the jail population would increase significantly, Winona County Sheriff Ron Ganrude said. Pomeroy was convinced that the criminal justice programs also help the county keep the number of foster-care placements down, many of which are a result of parents’ drug abuse. Foster care and other out-of-home placements cost the county millions of dollars each year. “I think if we back off on these programs we could easily see out-of-home placements go up, and not only from a monetary standpoint, but gosh, who wants to separate kids from their parents?” Pomeroy asked. Jacob and Ward resisted funding for the justice programs, questioning whether they really do save the county money in the long run and insisting the county should pressure the state to fund the programs instead; however, Olson and Kovecsi supported providing funding to preserve the programs. Kovecsi said she had heard from numerous citizens whose friends or family were affected by addiction or mental illness. “They are very much in favor of prevention programs and early intervention. This is a societal need, and we take care of our common good,” she stated.
If the County Board adds those justice programs to the 2019 budget, it will need to come up with more tax dollars to fund them, use more reserves, or make more cuts. The proposed four-percent preliminary levy would put the pressure on the board to find savings before December, Fritz noted. “It makes the ceiling so low,” Fritz stated.
The County Board will formally vote on the preliminary levy on September 25.