Sherburne County holds the line on levy yet again

by Jim Boyle

Editor

Sherburne County commissioners voted unanimously Dec. 11 to adopt general and regional rail property tax levies for the coming year with no increase in either amount over what the county taxed residents in 2012.

In order to continue an annual streak of keeping a flat levy in the county, the board also approved a move to transfer $500,000 in excess public works funds into the 2013 general fund.

The county ends 2012 with a surplus in public works dollars primarily because this was still a competitive year where many contractors were trying to keep employees working by entering bids that mostly fell under road engineers’ estimates from a year or two earlier, County Administrator Brian Bensen told the Star News. Sherburne County levied for those road projects in advance based on the estimates, he explained, and lower actual costs left dollars in the bank. “We got better or lower bids on quite a few projects,” Bensen said.

Next year’s budgets include pay increases for all union and non-union county employees starting at 1.25 percent Jan. 1 and growing to 2.5 percent in July. All employees received a pay raise of 1 percent in 2012 after wages were frozen through 2010 and 2011.

The county has also cut 61 positions since 2007, Bensen reported at an annual public tax hearing Dec. 10, and many of those reductions have affected land record, zoning and inspection departments, he said.

Commissioners reached a split vote Dec. 11 on whether to raise their own salaries for county work. The increases for other employees will average around 2 percent for the year, Bensen noted, and the board voted 4-1 Tuesday morning to approve a raise of 2 percent in its salaries for a 2013 base of $38,406 each. The policy also allows commissioners to accept per diem for each meeting day. The board salaries had not changed since 2009. Commissioner John Riebel voted to oppose the increase this time. “There’s still a lot of people out there who are hurting,” he said.

Within a consent agenda at Tuesday’s meeting, the board approved rates for mileage (matching the federal IRS rate) and meal expense reimbursement in 2013. County workers file all mileage claims with their department heads, who transfer them to the auditor/treasurer’s office.

During travel for conferences, employees may receive up to $30 in daily meal reimbursement in Minnesota, or $35 out of state. “There are standards for when you can claim a meal, and when you can’t,” Bensen told the Star News, adding that a meeting ending at 11:30 a.m. or noon does not automatically qualify an employee for the privilege. “It has to be something inherent in the meeting you’re going to,” he said.

Comprising the county levies of about $43.79 million (including $1.948 million in the regional rail levy), Bensen noted for the public Dec. 10 that county taxes will be rising 12.28 percent for agricultural land, on average, while falling 4.47 percent for residential land. Those shifts reflect changes in taxable values for those land classifications. Bensen said higher prices for corn and other crops from southwestern Minnesota will affect values throughout the state. “We kind of get pulled up because of that,” he said.

Commissioner and board Chairperson Larry Farber said Dec. 10 that mandates from the state and federal governments dictate a minimum of what the county must budget and levy, with those requirements equaling 70 to 80 percent of the county’s budget, he said.

One citizen among a very small crowd at Monday’s hearing asked Farber if the state and federal governments set the amounts which must be funded. Yes, he replied. Sherburne County and others have been working with those higher levels of government to reduce the mandates, Farber said, but up to now, “it’s a futile battle.”

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