County debates, passes levy increase

Right when it appeared the Isanti County Board was going to approve the first property tax levy increase in four years, as proposed last fall and worked on since July, one commissioner offered another idea.

With a motion and a second on the table at the Dec. 18 board meeting, Mike Warring used the allowed discussion time to unveil a new plan of budget cuts that he said would keep the levy flat and the county from digging into its reserves. His ideas ranged from reducing overtime in at least one department to cutting down on building security costs.

Yet it was the timing of his proposal and the fact that it hadn’t been shared with the board in previous meetings that caused some commissioners to pause and even criticize Warring. He noted he was never for a levy increase and had been gathering data over the last couple of weeks.

Ultimately, the board on a 4-1 vote approved both a 6.48 percent increase to the county’s property tax levy for 2014 and next year’s budget, with Warring casting the dissenting vote on each issue. The $16.48 million levy amounts to about $1 million more than the prior year.

Commissioners also approved the following lake improvement district levy and special assessments for 2014 as previously voted on by each district: Green Lake, levy $24,400 in property taxes on properties within the district; Long Lake, special assessments of $150 per property owner (estimated to generate $33,450 in revenue to fund district operations); and Fannie Lake, special assessments of $250 per property owner (estimated to raise $21,750).

Warring, proposal scrutinized

Prior to the final vote, there was plenty of discussion surrounding Warring’s last-minute budget-cut plan.

“There is not a person here who wants to raise the levy,” said Boardchair Susan Morris, who was

visibly surprised and disturbed by Warring’s announcement. “Why bring this up now? We’ve been working on this since July.”

Warring handed out copies of his single-page proposal that were provided to commissioners and county finance director Chad Struss, who joined the discussion. Without much detail or explanation, they talked about areas involving the sheriff’s office, family services, rail authority, sales tax and slicing the building security budget down to $100,000.

“It’s very disappointing; we spent countless hours (on the budget),” Morris reacted, criticizing the timing and lack of explanation in Warring’s plan.

Commissioner George Larson viewed the proposal as “smoke and mirrors” and said Warring is “not facing reality” with his budget cuts.

“It makes no sense to me,” he added.

Morris also emphasized that Isanti County ranks 80 out of 87 counties in running the most lean and efficient county budget. As for the financial position the county is in, she talked about the state’s impact on the county in terms of absorbing costs and impacts from the federal level, as well, particularly the Affordable Care Act.

“We are not a county with frivolous spending; we scrutinize everything,” Morris said.

Earlier in the meeting, Warring proposed and received majority support from commissioners to keep next year’s board members salary and per diems the same as this year, rather than accepting an increase in pay. Warring believed the move would “set an example to the county.”

Voting with him were Morris and Greg Anderson; voting against maintaining the salary and per diem levels were George Larson and Larry Southerland.