The Winona County Board jumped the gun last week and voted to “direct staff” to reduce the 2013 property tax levy to minus 3 percent, down from the tentative zero percent increase approved in September.
The board cannot formally adopt the property tax levy or budget until December, when state law requires government units to certify and vote on final budget figures. Commissioner Jim Pomeroy asked whether the vote could be taken early, and was told the board could direct staff to present lower figures, but must wait until December to finalize the levy.
Pomeroy said the last thing he wanted was to lower the levy too much, then be forced to raise it again the following year to balance the budget. He said he had spent hours looking over the draft 2013 budget and wasn’t finding many more areas to cut. But after a 2012 budget update showed the county’s current 2012 fund balance is more than $1.2 million above the balance in September, 2011, he said he felt the levy decrease for 2013 would work.
The county does not, however, have $1.2 million in revenue sitting in the bank from the 2012 budget. County budgets rely in part on state and federal funding for programs. Because those funds come in at various times of the year, a look at the budget at certain times of the year will show the county operating in the red when reserve dollars are not factored in. One way to monitor revenue and expenditures mid-year is to compare the current month’s balance with the balance during the same month of the previous year. Figures presented to commissioners showed a September balance of -$570,613, compared with the -$1,810,401 balance in September 2011. Those numbers typically move into the black and out of negative territory as the county receives funds from the state and federal government before the end of the year.
In September, County Administrator Duane Hebert said the county typically has a surplus of about $300,000 each year that can help draw down the following year’s property tax levy. That has not always been the case, however. Between 2003 and 2009, the county collected more than $2.5 million on average over and above expenditures each year from taxpayers, a trend that was identified in Winona Post news coverage. Shortly after a series of stories ran in this newspaper, the county hired an outside firm to conduct a full financial systems analysis, and has since restructured its financial systems.
The unanimous decision to reduce the 2013 levy marks the fourth year in a row that Winona County has either adopted no tax increase or reduced the property tax levy.