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County Board defeats budget motion

The Crow Wing County’s Board defeated a motion to adopt the proposed 2012 budget and levy 3-2 Tuesday night.

The vote came after a three-and-a-half hour meeting where baseball analogies and even magic acts were used to describe proceedings that left staff frustrated and board members divided.

In September, the board adopted a proposed levy of $34,876,657 for a reduction of $845,039 or 2.37 percent.

To start Tuesday’s night meeting, Mike Carlson, finance director, said in a decade of experience with the county “this is by far the lowest levy the county has seen and some of the greatest work I’ve seen from departments as well.”

County departments have been working with the board on the budget for about eight months. But nearly three hours into the board meeting, things began to unravel.

About 11 people attended the public hearing with a resolution on the proposed 2012 budget expected.

The proposed 2012 budget and levy is $70,464,618 for expenditures and a tax levy of $34,876,657 with non-levy revenue — from fees, permits, license revenue along with intergovernmental funds — of $31,284,176.

“Operationally I would say a very flat budget from 2011 to 2012,” Carlson said.

Carlson said the average homestead in the county for 2012 is $199,100 and the county’s share of its taxes is $48.58 per month.

A handful of people spoke at the public hearing expressing concerns for tax burdens on homeowners, seasonal residents and businesses. Well into the meeting, Board Chairman Paul Thiede said he wanted to cut about $700,000 more, almost the match to the money designated for wage increases. The wage increases were already being offset by a reduction in insurance payments.

The county moved to a pay-as-you-go philosophy of saving money for future expenditures to reduce the amount of borrowing needed for bigger projects. Thiede said in the current economy he didn’t believe it was necessary to advance that every year. He suggested taking $500,000 from the county’s capital outlay budget. If the economy turns around, he said the money could be put back in the fund with an additional amount for a total of $600,000 next year.

One of the county’s long-term projects, perhaps for construction in 2016 or 2017, is a new law enforcement center. Thiede said after talking with an architect, about $3,000 to $4,000 could be used for a report on the facility for a better handle on whether its life can be prolonged. Thiede proposed taking the full 10 percent cut in the library funding as allowed by the state to cut $56,000 from its budget and taking $125,000 from a personal time off buy back.

Commissioner Phil Trusty said he was “not one for bottom of the ninth swinging for the fence” adding the county has worked hard on this budget with a levy decrease. Trusty said he was concerned about having to put in bigger increases in future years by making cuts now to funds established for longer range projects.

Commissioners and staff members said they were taken aback by the last minute changes after months of work on the budget. Thiede said it was not an ambush to staff as he’s been clean he wanted to reduce the budget. Thiede said he couldn’t imagine he was surprising anyone with the discussions he’s been having with staff. County Attorney Don Ryan said a seven minute conversation earlier in the day did not constitute previous staff discussions.

Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom said they’ve plotted a course and asked employees to come with them and now she wasn’t comfortable changing it all on Thiede’s say so and based on his creative genius. Thiede thanked her for calling him a genius.

Commissioner Doug Houge suggested it may just be at the top of the ninth and he didn’t know if he could support all of Thiede’s changes but he wanted to take a look at it, particularly the money for the LEC. Commissioner Rosemary Nystrom also wanted more time to research the numbers.

Administrator Tim Houle said he has a great deal of respect for Thiede but to come in this late in the process puts inordinante amount of stress on staff who have worked for months to get to this point when it would have been better to bring the ideas forward three months ago.

“This is the same thing that happened last year,” Houle said of the proposal for significant cuts on the same day the budget could have been adopted.

“It’s also difficult for us,” Nystrom said. “Pulling a rabbit out of the hat is dazzling, but it doesn’t work in this situation. It doesn’t work for me.”

It may be late in the game, but Thiede said it was a simple solution and he was a big boy and people could vote for his plan or not. Thiede said the reality is he knows a lot of people in construction who remain out of work and he doesn’t see an economic recovery coming quickly.

“This isn’t the bottom of the ninth,” he said.

Trusty’s motion to adopt the budget without a $5,000 addition to the airport and with a 5 percent cut to the library was seconded by Nystrom. When the other side of the table was silent, Trusty asked if he’d get support if he did the full 10 percent library cut. Houge, Thiede and Franzen voted again. Franzen said she was satisfied with the budget before but was willing to look at the new ideas. Staff was directed to research the numbers Thiede brought up.

Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
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