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County board weighs new hires in budget talks

Steele County, budget, 2024, mn
Joni Hubred, News Editor

Since Steele County officials set their preliminary tax levy, changes in revenues, spending adjustments, and a reduced MN Prairie Alliance levy have shaved more than $347,000 off the 2024 budget.

That could lower the levy from 5.6% to 4.4%. But commissioners are still talking about whether to add some staff positions and how to best prepare for a looming schedule of capital projects.

During a Nov. 28 study session, interim finance director Cathy Piepho said larger projects will include $1 million to purchase generator and replace the roof at the Administration Center; an estimated $10 million to revamp the Annex building; $600,000 to install a secure front entrance at the courthouse; more than $2 million to replace the parking lot and roof at the Detention Center; $900,000 for a hard-surface project at the fairgrounds; and $3.3 million to replace the roof and install a new floor and boards for the west rink at the Four Seasons Centre.

“Potentially, the county may need to bond for these projects,” she said.

There’s potentially good news on that front, she said, with a possible upgrade in the county’s bond rating–currently AA, “which is good for the size of the county.” Also, all the county’s debt will be paid off by 2031.

The coming year will bring parking lot replacements to the courthouse (along with the addition of 17 stalls), and the front and back of the administration building. Taken together, the cost would be around $1 million. Commissioner James Brady suggested combining them in one bid to get a better price.

Piepho said the county’s unrestricted funds in reserve at the end of 2023 will amount to 53.4% of the estimated 2024 expenditures, or a little under 6.5 months. She noted that Standard & Poor’s, which will review the county’s bond rating, considers that figure.

“The healthier it is, the better your credit rating is as well,” she said.

In a memo, Piepho said staff did recommend using unassigned highway fund reserves for the parking lot projects, since they “will be for the use of the general public.” That fund balance, equal to nearly a year’s worth of expenditures, would remain healthy even after using $950,000.

Two other big projects–a new Community Corrections building and sheriff’s office addition at the Detention Center–will be funded primarily with federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act. Some capital fund reserves, including revenues from the county’s half of the Law Enforcement Center building on Pearl Street, will be used, as will additional Community Corrections funds authorized in the last state legislative session.

Based on the current budget estimates, the county will have a little under six months’ worth of expenditures in reserves at the end of 2024, Piepho said.

This year’s budget requests also include staffing in Information Technology, Community Corrections, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and Human Resources. Piepho said the Community Corrections position would be covered by increased state funding, with no budget impact. Also, the cyber-security position, first requested in 2023, doesn’t have a job description yet and so may not be implemented in 2024.

The GIS and Human Resources positions would add a combined .4% increase to the levy.

Piepho also ran through some tax impacts on different valued homes and said even at 5.6%, the county’s portion of the budget would decrease taxes for property owners, provided their home value didn’t increase.   

The county board will hold its Truth in Taxation public hearing on Dec. 12, 6 p.m., at the Administration Center, 630 Florence Ave. in Owatonna. Officials must finalize the levy by Dec. 28.

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