by CHRIS ROGERS
Tuesday evening is the last chance for citizens to let the Winona County Board know how they feel about their proposed property taxes for 2019. The County Board is set to raise its 2019 property tax levy by 5.5 percent, and it will host a public hearing on Tuesday evening before taking a final vote on December 27.
Earlier this fall, County Board member Steve Jacob pressured his colleagues to consider unpopular budget cuts in order to reduce next year’s tax hike, and initially, County Board members Marie Kovecsi and Greg Olson said the cuts should be seriously considered. However, faced with the choice to cut funding for meals for poor seniors, drop mentorships for at-risk children, or lay off county employees, Kovecsi, Olson, and County Board member Jim Pomeroy ultimately decided against most of the proposed cuts. Additionally, they supported adding to the budget deficit in order to fund criminal justice programs such as treatment court — formerly drug court — and a jail intake position. Kovecsi, Pomeroy, and Olson argued that these programs help save the county money in the long-term by reducing the jail population and overcoming addiction problems that fuel foster care costs.
The farm economy is hurting right now, County Board member Marcia Ward said during budget debates earlier this fall. “My friends, my neighbors, my constituents are losing money. So to even ask them to give us [an extra] penny is hard to ask,” she stated.
For years, the County Board reduced taxes or kept them stable while other costs were increasing, and over the last decade, the tax levy only increased four percent in total, Pomeroy pointed out. It was an argument that Chris Meyer, who won an election to replace the retiring Pomeroy, borrowed in her campaign: in the big picture, a 5.5-percent tax increase this year is not so bad.
In this fall’s election, Winona and Goodview voters elected Meyer and re-elected Kovecsi over more fiscally conservative options, while rural voters stuck with Ward over an opponent who was more open to tax increases.
Even the 5.5-percent levy increase county administrator Ken Fritz is recommending would not balance the county’s 2019 budget. With the tax increase, the budget includes a $418,294 deficit. Assuming that the County Board does not reopen budget cut discussions it already decided against, any lower tax hike would increase the deficit.
The projected deficit will come out of the county’s reserves. Auditors recommend that governments keep several months’ worth of operating expenses on hand as a reserve in order to cover their cash-flow needs in an emergency. The county’s reserves are currently below the County Board’s own policy — which calls for keeping five months’ worth of operating expenses, or around $20 million, in reserve — and the proposed budget would further reduce the reserves to $15 million. However, other governments only recommend three months’ worth of reserves — $12 million, in Winona County’s case — Fritz pointed out in a memo to the board. “[Lowering] the tax levy would increase the deficit slightly and decrease our reserves slightly, but not create an untenable situation,” Fritz said. However, relying on reserves is not a sustainable solution. “If you continue to do this going forward and have smaller tax increases now, the cumulative effect will be harder to deal with down the road,” he stated. In other words, if the County Board keeps draining reserves to keep taxes low now, it might have to raises taxes drastically in the future when those reserves run out.
The County Board will hold a public hearing on the proposed 2019 budget and tax levy on Tuesday, December 11, at 7 p.m. on the second floor of the Winona County Government Center at 177 Main Street in Winona.