The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Local News

August 30, 2011

County set for 3 percent levy hike limit

MANKATO — The Blue Earth County Board appears ready to approve a levy increase for next year’s taxes of no more than 3 percent. The amount of taxes that taxpayers would actually pay would rise 9.2 percent, for reasons that come mostly from changes in state law.

The board liked what they saw Tuesday in the budget prepared for them by Blue Earth County Administrator Bob Meyer. If that impression sticks until the Sept. 6 board meeting, the budget will be approved as “preliminary,” meaning it can be lowered but not raised before it’s finished in December.

“I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who thinks we’re going to have this budget at the end of the day,” Commissioner Will Purvis said.

Last year, the county started with a preliminary levy of 2.9 percent and ended up with a 1.9 percent increase.

Specific cuts didn’t generate much discussion Tuesday, but possibilities include delaying major purchases. A $250,000 project to install sprinklers in the government center could be delayed, but no commissioners supported such a delay.

The budget already moved back the demolition of the Nichols Office Building, if it ever happens, to at least 2013. VINE Faith in Action is trying to raise enough money to turn the building into a senior center.

Overall, the budget doesn’t envision big changes.

It includes a health insurance increase of 3 percent, which is only an estimate.

It also includes an estimate for non-union salaries, but Meyer didn’t want to say what it was because the county is currently negotiating with unions for 2012 pay. Non-union salaries were frozen for 2011.

Blue county, red queen

In the novel upon which “Alice in Wonderland” is based, Alice tells the Red Queen that she’s used to actually getting somewhere when she runs.

The caustic reply: “A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. ...”

Changes in state tax law

Local governments across the state are feeling a bit like Alice this fall. Even if they wanted to keep their budgets flat, they’d have to cut them.

That’s because of changes to something called the Market Value Homestead Credit, which basically had the state pay part of local governments’ tax levy.

That payment is going away, so taxpayers will be paying the part of the levy that the state used to pay for. In Blue Earth County, that payment was about $1.6 million.

For that reason, if the County Board wanted no tax increase, they’d have to lower the levy by 5.5 percent. And that’s a decrease for which only Commissioner Drew Campbell showed any sort of appetite.

The confusion has left Blue Earth County, like others, with something of a message problem.

“Is there any way to explain to the citizens that we didn’t raise taxes, the state did?” Commissioner Vance Stuehrenberg asked.

Campbell disagreed with the characterization that the state is to blame, saying the County Board, as always, has the power to levy taxes at whatever level it chooses.

That is more or less where the conversation ended Tuesday, but it’s likely to continue during meetings this fall.

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