Isanti County approves, weighs in on proposed tax levy hike

Isanti County is looking at a possible 6.48 percent increase to its property tax levy for 2014 to help offset a $16 million gap from projected dollars going out and coming in next year.

If certified in December, the $16,479,667 levy would mark the first increase since about a million less was approved for 2011.

After some discussion by Finance Director Chad Struss, the county board approved next year’s proposed levy and budget on a 3-1 vote during its regular Sept. 4 meeting. With Commissioner Mike Warring solely voting against, George Larson made the motion and stressed, “We cannot keep drawing from our fund balance (reserves).”

Other commissioners weighed in, too.

“I’ll second the motion, but we need to find a way to reduce (the levy),” Larry Southerland said.

“I’ll support a 6.48 percent levy increase, but we should look at additional cost savings,” added Greg Anderson, noting more budget meetings, employee suggestions and public feedback can lead to a “good final budget in the end.”

For Boardchair Susan Morris, she also touched on the county’s reserves and how the fund balance can no longer be relied on for keeping levies flat as in years past. She acknowledged the work that has been done on the budget since July and the many cuts in positions the board has already made in an attempt to keep the tax burden down.

“We’re the seventh cheapest county in the state,” she said of the frugality of Isanti County. “We already run a lean ship, do more with less, and we’ve tried really hard to do a zero percent levy increase. The state and federal government have demanded a lot of us.”

Morris noted the county is being told to add anywhere from six to eight new positions in departments including public health and family services due in large part to the federal Affordable Care Act and Minnesota Department of Human Services’ MnCHOICES initiative.

Struss noted, the county is projecting 2014 expenditures of $36,695,541 and non-levy revenues of $19,830,377. The difference, $16,865,164, needs to be funded by the property tax levy and use of reserves, he pointed out.

Struss emphasized these amounts are preliminary and subject to change between now and December, when the final budget and levy are adopted. The final levy can only be equal to or less than the proposed levy. A preliminary budget public hearing is set for 7 p.m. Dec. 4.