Commissioners endorse proposed 6.31 percent tax levy increaseMembers of the Carlton County Board were divided in their support of a proposed 6.31 percent levy increase at their regular session on Tuesday.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Members of the Carlton County Board were divided in their support of a proposed 6.31 percent levy increase at their regular session on Tuesday. The vote on the maximum tax levy for 2013 passed on a final tally of 3-2. Commissioners Bob Olean, Tom Proulx and Marv Bodie supported the proposal, and Commissioners Ted Pihlman and Dick Brenner voted in opposition.
“I have some real concerns over 6.31 percent,” said Pihlman. “St. Louis County is only proposing a 1.5 percent increase, and though their budget is much larger than ours is, it still seems as though we’re on the high side.”
Commissioner Tom Proulx stated he’d just as soon see the county come in “on the high side” at this time and then be able to adjust downward rather than limit the increase at this point. By law, the county must abide by the maximum levy certified in September, with the potential to decrease – but not exceed – that amount when the final budget and levy are adopted in December.
“Is there any way you can get us down to 3 percent?” Brenner asked County Auditor/Treasurer Paul Gassert.
“I can get you down to 3 percent, I can get you down to zero percent, I can get you down to less than that,” said Gassert. “It all depends on what you’re willing to go without.”
County Coordinator Dennis Genereau pointed out that the proposed budget does not include any cost of living increases for county employees and the wages are not going up. He said the current budget pretty much holds the line in that regard but also protects the county from any job layoffs at this time.
“Though I think we can work on the numbers somewhat,” added Genereau, “we are trying to do as much as we can to continue to provide services at the current levels.”
The proposed 2013 levy amounts to $22,308, 897 as opposed to the 2012 levy of $20,983,820, for an increase of $1,325,077. The most significant increase is the addition of a new probation officer position at an annual salary of approximately $72,000. A proposed $60,000 expense to help keep the Rural Women’s Advocates program afloat did not materialize because the group is dissolving after the grant that supported the majority of its funding failed to come through.
In other business, the board unanimously approved refilling the position of deputy appraiser following a resignation in that department. Commissioners also authorized refilling the position of marketing specialist in the county economic development office and also agreed to create a new loan and grant administrator position in that office as well to manage the county’s increasing number of loan pools. According to Economic Development Director Pat Oman, the salary for the position will come out of the economic development budget and will not affect the proposed tax levy. The economic development staff will now expand from the current 2.5 FTEs to 3 FTEs.
The board agreed to match a donation by the city of Moose Lake of up to $700 to help support the debris removal from a home owned by William Eknes that was demolished after the June flooding. Eknes had approached the board at its last meeting, saying he could not afford the entire cost of tearing down the house, performing the required lot renovation and hauling off the debris.
The board requested that a committee of county department heads meet to consider a possible policy in dealing with these types of requests. The committee met with representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Homeland Security and Emergency Management (HSEM) of Minnesota to discuss various options. Heather Cunningham, zoning and environmental services director, reported on those options to the board on Tuesday. Two of those options – FEMA public assistance and the HSEM hazard mitigation program – would require the property be located in a designated flood plain in order to qualify and the county or other local government unit to act on behalf of the homeowner. They would also prohibit the property from being improved in any way and require it remain in public ownership and remain as green space “in perpetuity” – a deal breaker as far as several of the commissioners were concerned.
“There’s no sense in buying another piece of property we can’t do anything with,” said Pihlman.
Land Commissioner Greg Bernu acknowledged that if a homeowner cannot afford to improve his or her damaged property, there’s a chance they may end up simply walking away from it, which could mean it would end up as tax-forfeited land in the hands of the county.
“At least then we’d have the option to eventually sell it if we so choose and put it back on the public tax rolls,” said Bernu.
Some commissioners expressed concern, however, that if a flood-damaged house is abandoned, it could become a public blight or safety hazard.
The third option outlined by Cunningham was the DNR Flood Damage Reduction Grant Assistance Program. Though it is similar to the other two, it does allow for the lot to be improved “for a public purpose” in accordance with local land use standards. The federal government covers 75 percent of the costs and the state covers 25 percent. While the board was not interested in the program at this time, commissioners said other local units of government might want consider it.