For years it was a standing joke around town that Winona’s fastest growing enterprise was not Fastenal Inc., but county government. Now, thanks to some excellent investigative reporting by the Post’s Sarah Elmquist, we understand why. In articles on Winona County Government published in the Post last Wednesday and today, she documents that the county has brought in an average surplus, between 2003 and 2008, of a whopping $2,559,436 per year, and that much of that money was squirreled away by county staff in funds for a new building that had never been authorized by the County Board.
This was done, apparently, by consistently overestimating expenses, (overbudgeting), and underestimating revenues. County policy stipulates that excess revenue be used to draw down the next year’s property tax levy, but it was pigeonholed, instead, in accounts for a building that staff apparently desired, but the board hadn’t gotten around to considering or voting on.
Taxes were increased by 7% in 2004, due to an expected shortfall, but by the end of the year there was a surplus of $2 million. Then in 2005, taxes were raised another 7%. That year, $1,799,000 was set aside for the new building, in addition to $1.4 million which was from the state, designated as local levy relief designed to restore the property tax levy to 2002 levels! The levy continued to climb until this year, 2010.
When the County Board got around to considering the building project in October of 2009, it was touted as providing a savings of up to $300,000 a year, (although about half of that was based on staff attrition that would take place regardless of new digs). Board member Dwayne Voegeli marveled that it was hard for some people to see that you can build a building and save money.
Commissioner Jim Pomeroy’s take, however, was that the savings were figured not on the total cost of the project, but only on what needed to be bonded for in addition to money already in the sock, only one-third of the total. He remarked that such calculations assumed that those stashed funds had been “found under a rock.” It should be reported that he and Commissioner Marcia Ward voted no on the new building, based on these reservations, plus the conviction that with hard times still with us, the money should be used for the operations it had been collected for.
This sorry situation came about because the County Board, back in 2003, voted to grant a “Budget Committee,” headed by then Finance Director Blake Pickart, authority over “undesignated funds.” This committee was composed of six department heads and only two commissioners, with county staff in the big majority. Meetings of this group do not currently fall under the open meeting law, nor there scanty records of their meetings.
New board chair Jim Pomeroy and new County Administrator Duane Hebert are now proposing the consolidation of excess funds in one account so that an overall picture of county finances is more readily visible to its leaders. In addition, the old Budget Committee has been replaced with a finance committee with a much stronger board representation so hopefully, the era of runaway Winona County master building has come to a close.