New circumstances, same outcome — the Winona County Board approved the county’s 2022 preliminary budget and a 3 percent property tax levy increase on a 3-2 vote last week. In a familiar breakdown, board members Marie Kovecsi, Chris Meyer, and Greg Olson supported the budget and tax increase, and members Steve Jacob and Marcia Ward opposed it. 

Next year’s budget includes the first debt payments on the new county jail, totaling $827,000. Outside of that, it is a relatively status quo budget in terms of spending, though wage increases for county staff and the rising cost of social services perpetually pressure the county to raise revenue. The 3 percent tax increase is lower than the 4-6 percent increases approved in 2017-2020, but higher than this year, when the County Board kept taxes flat in an effort to ease the economic damage of the pandemic.

In 2022, a 6 percent tax hike would have been required to fully balance the roughly $1 million deficit in the county budget, according to County Administrator Ken Fritz. Alternatively, the county could have offset the need for any tax increase by using up part of its $3 million in federal COVID relief funding.

Fritz warned that relying on one-time money to balance the budget would force the county to raise taxes more drastically in future years once the one-time COVID money runs out. “If you don’t pass some kind of tax increase, you’ll be dealing with a bigger deficit in the coming years,” he said. Instead, Fritz recommended and the County Board majority approved a middle way: a 50-50 mix of higher taxes and COVID relief funds.

“We just approved employee contracts, which is a very large part of our budget,” Olson said at last week’s meeting, alluding to Jacob’s support for paying employees more while voting against the budget. “And I think the 3 percent preliminary levy is reasonable,” Olson continued.

Jacob praised the budget, taking issue only with the jail debt payments. “I don’t see anything that looks out of place on [the budget]. As a conservative person, financially conservative, I remember the days that we had zero percent and even tax cuts. And that is certainly what I would want to strive for … The only part of [the budget] that is a little bit of a tough pill to swallow was, I voted against the jail.” 

The county was set to be debt free, an achievement that would have lessened the pressure to raise taxes; however, the county has started borrowing what will total $28 million in debt to finance the new jail. The county had to do something to replace its old jail because it was condemned by the state. Jacob and Ward had argued for a smaller facility, while the board majority supported the planned 80-bed jail. A county study reported that a smaller jail would have been more expensive in the long run because of the cost of transporting inmates to neighboring jails.

“I’ve been really looking forward to the day that we would be debt free … So to automatically parlay those payments into the new liability of the jail, that’s just a tough pill for me to swallow,” Jacob said.

Ward argued the county should not raise taxes when it has so much federal COVID relief money. “I cannot in my right conscience ask local property tax payers to pay a property tax increase when we can’t figure out how to spend the money we’re given,” she said.

Conversely, Kovecsi pointed out a recent uptick in requests for social services, saying, “There are a lot of services that we provide for people, and the number of people that need those services is increasing. I want to commend our staff. They’re doing more with less every year.”

The County Board could lower next year’s tax levy before the budget is finalized in December, but historically the board tends to stick with the preliminary levy amount.

Chris@winonapost.com