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Our Opinion: Settlement needed in county attorney budget

We can understand why Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan is appealing his office's 2017 budget in district court.

Ryan's budget submission would have resulted in a budget increase for the county attorney's office of $189,410. Assuming no other changes were made to the county's budget, this would have been a .38 percent increase in the county's overall property tax levy over 2016. Instead, the county board passed a property tax levy with reductions for the seventh straight year, which included a modest increase in Ryan's budget to account for cost increases of sexual assault exams and costs expensed to his office for the county's new initiatives. The value of Ryan's budget request that was not approved amounts to .21 percent of the county's $83.27 million budget.

Ryan is appealing the board's resolution that set the county's 2017 budget and property tax levy, alleging the board's actions were "arbitrary, capricious, oppressive or in unreasonable disregard for the responsibilities and duties of the office of the county attorney, and the county attorney's experience, qualifications and performance."

Basically, Ryan is arguing that the county board is not allocating his office enough funds to properly do its job.

We also can understand why the county board balked at Ryan's request during budget discussions and why, now, they're standing their ground against his lawsuit challenging their decision. The county board has been clear in its goal to keep tax levies flat.

There really can be no winners here. The board acted within its purview in setting its budget as it saw fit. Ryan, by state statute has every right to appeal the issue as an elected official. There has to be middle ground on this issue and we hope that both sides can find it and reach a settlement before the situation becomes a costly one in district court.

The appeal also brings to the forefront a concern we have about the county's budgets and levies, and that is whether it is being pennywise and pound foolish in not planning financially for the future.

On paper, the county board can be commended for no levy increases the past several years. The goal keeping the levy static or reducing it has meant the county has found efficiencies and other cost savings to keep taxes down for residents. But what, ultimately, will be the cost of such frugality? Expenses for the county have not gone backwards in those years and, sooner or later, not spending resources where they are needed could cause harm to the services the county provides its residents. There's only so much fat you can trim before you start cutting muscle.

Ryan is one of two county officials, along with Sheriff Todd Dahl, who can appeal their budget through a third party. While this might be a good test case to shine light on spending deficiencies in the county, we hope the matter can be settled far before it goes before a judge.

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