by CHRIS ROGERS
In a 3-2 vote last month, the Winona County Board approved a 4.3-percent property-tax levy increase and a $51-million budget for 2020. Commissioners Marie Kovecsi, Chris Meyer, and Greg Olson supported the tax increase, saying the county had worked hard to minimize expenses. Commissioners Steve Jacob and Marcia Ward voted against the budget and tax hike. Jacob spoke favorably about the budget itself, but argued he could not vote for raising taxes while county agricultural regulations were limiting economic growth. Ward said that her constituents — especially farmers and seniors on limited incomes — cannot afford the tax hike.
The 4.3-percent levy increase will raise the total amount of property taxes the county collects from local property owners by $838,000. The largest increase in expenses for the county comes from the community services department, where the county budgeted to spend an extra $660,000 in 2020. County officials have been largely unable to control costs for state-mandated community services such as foster care. Along with inflation, wage increases, and run-of-the-mill projects, the 2020 budget includes some more interesting additions, including $145,000 for new courthouse-security deputies, $135,000 for new permitting software for the planning and zoning department, $100,000 to hire a jail architect and construction manager, and $57,000 for body cameras for the sheriff’s department. The new budget also continues to wean the County Board off of relying on reserves to balance the budget.
“I’ve had a number of calls and parking-lot conversations, grocery-store conversations and such, and my constituency just can’t keep affording these increases,” Ward said. “The crop prices are low. The farm economy is horrendous, and they’re having to cut in their own personal budgets and make sacrifices in figuring out how to make their own family hold, and they just can’t support us increasing their local property taxes,” she stated.
“I think the County Board has worked very hard at putting the levy and the budget together, as well as staff,” Commissioner Greg Olson responded. “We cut where we could. This has, I think, been described as a pretty bare-bones budget.”
Commissioner Chris Meyer touted a report that Winona County has the second-lowest property taxes per-capita of any county in the state.
The county ranks less favorably in terms of property taxes per dollar of property value.
“I think it is well known that we work hard on the budget, that staff works hard before we do and after we do, and there’s not much that is new if anything in this budget,” commissioner Marie Kovecsi stated. “So we’re really just holding our own with salary increases and the other items that increase annually.”
“I agree with everything that Commissioner Olson and Commissioner Meyer said. I don’t think we could be doing a better job internally with expenses,” Jacob said. “My position is we could do more to capture more [revenue] by releasing our economy,” he added.
Jacob reiterated comments he made this fall that the county’s animal-unit cap — a rule limiting the size of farm feedlots to no more than 1,500 animal units (1,071 cows) — was stifling the local economy. He had offered to support a tax increase if Kovecsi, Meyer, and Olson would consider changing the cap. They declined.