by CHRIS ROGERS
So far, the Winona County Board has been uncharacteristically in agreement over its 2020 budget. County staff unveiled a $52-million draft budget last week, and the County Board tentatively planned on raising its local property tax levy by 4.3 to 5.2 percent next year, depending on the cost of soon-to-be-released health insurance rates.
Commissioners Steve Jacob and Marcia Ward have historically opposed nearly any property tax increases. Last year and in past years, they pushed for controversial staff layoffs to save taxpayers money. Conversely, commissioner Marie Kovecsi and others have sometimes advocated for adding new staff positions or other expenditures to the budget, such as criminal justice reform programs.
However, Jacob said last week that, given the 5.5-, 5.5-, and six-percent tax increases over the last three years, county staff deserved credit for keeping the 2020 levy increase to just four percent. “To see this potential 4.3-percent [increase] instead of six percent — those are some real accomplishments,” Jacob stated.
Under the draft budget, the county’s total spending would fall from $54.5 million in the 2019 budget to $52 million in 2020, largely because the county had many major road construction projects in 2019. General-fund spending would also decline slightly in 2020, thanks in part to a nearly 38-percent reduction in the county maintenance department, which will have one less building to worry about in 2020 after county staff vacate the Winona County Government Center and consolidate most departments into a single office building. The Community Services department — which includes all manner of social services, welfare, and child protection programs — has often been a budget concern for county leaders because the state mandates the county to provide services but funds those services poorly, creating big deficits for the county, year after year. This year, however, Winona County Administrator Ken Fritz said that by capturing better reimbursements from the state, health insurance providers, and other funding sources, the Community Services department had significantly improved its revenues. The department is projected to bring in $1 million more next year.
Jacob praised that progress on Community Services’ revenue. Ward told staff, “Yes, thank you, and, kiddingly, it’s about time.”
There are things for more fiscally liberal County Board members to appreciate in the 2020 budget, as well.
The draft budget includes new staff positions the County Board had already supported: new deputies to handle courthouse security and funding for a jail intake worker. The jail intake worker helps judges evaluate whether defendants need to be held in jail pending trial, minimizing the county jail population. The job had previously been funded by a grant that is expiring. Kovecsi has been an outspoken supporter of funding all of those positions.
The draft budget does not include funding for economic development staff, a goal commissioner Chris Meyer talked about in her 2018 election campaign.
In what county leaders see as a positive sign for the county’s long-term financial health, the tentative budget plan would fund county programs without draining reserves. For years, the County Board has adopted deficit budgets that drain the county’s reserves a little bit each year. At one point, the county had excess reserves, but they have since been reduced significantly. In the long run, draining reserves is an unsustainable funding source that contributes to funding shortfalls in future years, Fritz noted, saying, “You have to pay the piper at some point.” Last year, the County Board started weaning itself off this practice, and, according to Fritz, the draft 2020 budget eliminates it entirely.
Depending on how much health insurance premiums go up next year, a 4.3-percent to 5.2-percent tax levy increase would balance the county’s 2020 budget. The County Board will discuss the budget again on September 10 before setting a preliminary levy on September 24. That preliminary levy can be lowered but not increased when the County Board sets the final 2020 tax levy in December.
The amount individual taxpayers will pay in county property taxes next year will vary depending on their property values. Later this fall, taxpayers should receive Truth-in-Taxation notices with the proposed new taxes for their specific properties. Thanks to new construction in Winona, St. Charles, and other communities, the county is likely to experience some increase in its tax base, helping spread out the burden of a property tax hike.