by CHRIS ROGERS
The Winona County Board unanimously rejected a request to raise local taxes to fund housing programs. Southeastern Minnesota Multi-County Housing and Redevelopment Authority (SEMMCHRA) Executive Director Joe Wheeler pitched the County Board a proposal earlier this month which would combine $100,000 in increased local taxes with state and private matching funds to develop new housing programs. “I think it could do a lot for badly needed elderly housing as well as workforce housing for the county,” Wheeler told the County Board. “I don’t know if you guys are hearing that, but we’re hearing that loud and clear from a lot of employers that they can’t expand because there just isn’t a workforce for them to go to.” County Board members are hearing that, but they were turned off by what they saw as significant problems with Wheeler’s proposal.
SEMMCHRA is a government agency formed by Goodhue, Wabasha, Winona, Houston, Fillmore, and Dodge counties. It runs all of the government housing programs in Winona County outside the city of Winona, which has its own housing and redevelopment authority. SEMMCHRA owns public housing developments in St. Charles, Lewiston, and Rollingstone. Some are subsidized, affordable housing units for low-income citizens only. Some are full-priced units specifically for seniors. Some are full-priced units open to citizens of any age or income level. The organization also offers home-repair funding, and administers federal Section 8 rental assistance. The Winona County Board currently levies $100,000 per year to support SEMMCHRA’s programs. That figure is partially offset by $25,000 in property taxes paid by SEMMCHRA to Winona County. The $100,000 in local taxes are only paid by Winona County residents living outside the city of Winona, in SEMMCHRA territory. Wheeler requested virtually no increase in SEMMCHRA’s normal funding, but he asked the County Board to charge taxpayers an extra $100,000 next year to create a housing trust fund.
Wheeler told the County Board that the Minnesota legislature had adopted a new law that would match state dollars, one-for-one, with county contributions to such a trust fund. Wheeler described the proposed trust fund as a permanent endowment that would fund the construction of new affordable housing and senior housing and fund the rehabilitation or remodeling of affordable and senior housing.
However, according to county staff, the legislation to which Wheeler referred has only been proposed, not passed, meaning that the state government has not actually agreed to provide matching dollars. With thousands of bills proposed in the Minnesota House of Representatives this spring, and only 99 becoming law during the regular session, there is a big difference between legislation that is proposed and legislation that has passed.
Winona County Board member Marcia Ward is one of two Winona County representatives on the SEMMCHRA Board. She was the first to speak against Wheeler’s proposal. “Joe and his organization — as you see all the categories here — do a marvelous thing for a lot of our residents,” she said, referring to various programs SEMMCHRA operates. “Section 8 — we get little letters and things. It’s changed their lives.” She added that SEMMCHRA’s South Fork addition in St. Charles was moving forward. “As far as this Winona County housing trust fund, I’m wary to support anything like that,” Ward stated. The state has not actually provided any funding, she pointed out. “I would definitely take a wait-and-see [approach],” Ward said.
Wheeler responded by suggesting that the County Board approve his request and, if the legislature does not pass the proposed legislation, then his organization would ask for less money next year. “If, for whatever reason, the state doesn’t fund that in this next legislative session, it’d be $100,000 we wouldn’t levy next year. We can set it up that way,” he told the County Board.
Winona County Board member Marie Kovecsi brought up the city of Winona’s 2016 housing study and its Housing Task Force. SEMMCHRA is working on getting funding to conduct its own study of the Winona County housing market’s supply and demand. The city of Winona study included analysis of some of SEMMCHRA’s territory: Rollingstone, Stockton, Goodview, Minnesota City, and the five townships surrounding Winona. The Winona Housing Task Force is developing policy recommendations for the Winona City Council to support housing projects. Those recommendations are primarily focused on Winona proper, but there has been some discussion of developing housing in nearby cities. Kovecsi asked whether Wheeler had seen the study and whether SEMMCHRA was coordinating with the city of Winona. Wheeler said, “No, I actually haven’t seen that study yet. So I’ll try to get my hands on that.”
Kovecsi is often a supporter of spending on social programs, but she took issue with SEMMCHRA on this point. “I’m also concerned about the lack of knowledge and the lack of participation in the city of Winona housing study … It’s been a very public study. It’s available online,” she said. “That’s what I would like to see is some coordination and some participation,” Kovecsi continued. “I don’t want to duplicate,” she added. Kovecsi also questioned how well thought-out SEMMCHRA’s plans for how to spend money from a housing trust fund are.
The County Board voted unanimously to nix Wheeler’s trust fund proposal and set the preliminary levy for SEMMCHRA at $100,000. Preliminary levy amounts may be lowered but not raised before the final levy is set in December. As the Winona Post went to press on Tuesday afternoon, the County Board had its first meeting to try to balance a nearly $3 million deficit in the county’s draft 2018 budget.