Steele County officials push for lower levy
While Steele County commissioners filed a preliminary levy 5.7% above last year, it’s looking more like that number will hover around 4% by the time all is said and done.
Local officials are required to set a preliminary number by Sept. 30 and a final levy by Dec. 28. As of a Nov. 22 County board work session, $455,875 had been shaved from the initially proposed $28,598,870 budget, bringing the increase down to 4%.
County Treasurer Cathy Piepho said during the meeting that the reductions came in several areas, including:
- a nearly $80,000 reduction in the county’s contribution to MN Prairie, which provides services to Steele, Waseca, and Dodge counties
- $143,288 in net personnel reductions such as staffing changes and benefit elections
- use of $79,657 in highway reserves for equipment purchases
- $60,000 saved by delaying purchase of a mower and snowplow
There were also changes in the Central Services budget ($40,622), removal of $12,000 to purchase chairs, tables, and storage carts for the Four Seasons Centre, and other reductions thanks to the use of budget reserves.
Piepho said the county still maintains about a six-month budget reserve.
County Administrator Scott Golberg said staff was looking on Tuesday for additional guidance about requests for a GIS (Geographic Information Systems) employee, an increase in library funding, and a new agreement that would result in a $10,000 increase in the county attorney’s salary.
Piepho will present the 2022 budget and levy numbers during a Dec. 13, 6 p.m., Truth in Taxation hearing required by law.
“We’re trying to hammer all this out,” Golberg said. “We want to try by the end of the session to get to what we should bring forward.”
Based on Tuesday’s discussion, that may not include County Attorney Daniel McIntosh’s request for an adjustment to his compensation.
Under an agreement struck in 2015, he has topped out on the county’s pay scale. He also receives an additional 5% added to his salary each year.
In August, McIntosh proposed a salary “not less than 15% higher than the next highest paid attorney in the office up to a maximum of the current base salary for a District Court Judge (as published annually by the Minnesota Judicial Branch).”
Officials generally panned the new agreement. Commissioner James Brady pointed out that McIntosh’s salary was higher than surrounding counties.
“Sometimes you’re topped out, you’re topped out, but you still can get a COLA on top of being topped out,” he said. “He compared his wages, tied it to judges. I don’t agree with that.”
Golberg said McIntosh is trying to tie his wages more to the court system. He also pointed out that the district court judge salaries are set by state lawmakers.
“Whatever the state legislature decides that salary should be, that’s where our county attorney salary is going,” he said.
Commissioner Greg Krueger said officials should consider other factors.
“I think also part of the discussion has to be the credibility of the county attorney’s office and the job they’ve done, especially running the courts and keeping things going through COVID,” he said, while other counties are far behind.
“Fair enough,” Abbe said, “but you could go around the room and say that about all the departments. A lot of people got us through COVID.”
Officials also had mixed reaction to the library’s request, the second double-digit ask in as many years. The large requests are designed to make up for 11 years of stagnant funding–no increases–from 2009 through 2020.
Commissioners approved a 17.5% increase in 2021; this year, the request was an additional 16.5%.
Commissioner John Glynn suggested giving the library a $10,000 increase, considering the background of the request.
“It’s a good faith thing, I think, to try and make up,” he said.
“The other thing is, the library has a huge foundation, too,” Commissioner Greg Krueger said, noting the two-year increase was over 30%. “I think that’s a pretty bold request. I understand where they’re coming from… that only works so much.”
Commissioners asked for more information about the request for the GIS employee, who would work three-quarters of the next year.
Piepho gave officials five scenarios to consider with GIS employee, county attorney and library request options, as well as options for a lower contribution to the library. Leaving them all would result in a 4.05% levy increase; cutting all options would take it down to 3.66%.