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County sees 8 percent levy increase

State funding cutbacks, exploding health insurance costs, the cost of running an election in a year that a new president will be chosen ... all of these played a role in the figure set for the preliminary 2007, payable 2008 Becker County property tax levy.

At Tuesday's county board meeting, the commissioners voted to set a total preliminary levy of $16,506,780 -- an 8.34 percent increase over the previous year's total.

If it is given final approval in December, this levy will mark the steepest property tax hike the county has approved in several years.

And while the 8.34 percent increase is, according to Board Chairman Barry Nelson, "quite a bit higher than what we want," it is also based on what he said was "really a conservative budget."

Several factors contributed to the increase, Nelson continued, including:

• A $120,000 cut in state HACA aid to the county;

• A 21 percent hike in county insurance rates, which raised the county's contribution to employee insurance premiums by almost $250,000;

• A required increase of $70,000 in the county's contribution to the Lake Agassiz Regional Library System;

• Cuts in state and federal funding for court services (probation), human services and the Soil & Water Conservation District;

• An increased allocation of $90,000 to the Becker County Highway Department, to fund construction needs and keep the county from falling behind in its five-year plan for maintaining county roads;

• An additional allocation of $70,000 to the county's election budget for equipment and staffing, due to the fact that the county is required by law to hold elections every other year (and 2008 is also a presidential election year);

In addition, several county departments required additional staffing; a dispatcher's position in the county sheriff's office and the assistant's position at the veteran's services office were both increased from part to full-time this year. The Becker County Attorney's office also added a full-time position in the middle of this past year, which means the position will be funded for a full year instead of a half year in 2008.

According to Commissioner Harry Salminen, this increased staffing is mainly due to the fact that Becker County is a growing county -- and its services have to grow accordingly.

"That's a nice problem to have," commented Commissioner Karen Mulari during a break in Tuesday's board proceedings.

The additional staff in the veteran's services office, noted County Administrator Brian Berg in a later interview, is also due to the fact that many U.S. Armed Forces servicemen and women returned to the county this year after serving in Iraq.

However, as Salminen, and later Berg both noted, the state has continued to pull back on its obligations to fund county programs, while still mandating that they keep those programs in place.

All of this has placed a greater portion of the tax burden on county taxpayers. But as Berg also noted, some homeowners may see little or no increase in their actual taxes.

This is due to a decrease in the county's extension rate -- the rate that is applied to the value of each owner's property to calculate their individual levy obligation.

For instance, in 2007, for every $100,000 in property owned, a taxpayer would owe the county $457. In 2008, that rate will drop to $425.

Thus, if a the value of your property did not rise, or rose very little, over the previous year, your actual county property tax would be less, despite the overall increase. However, if the value of your property did go up significantly, your taxes likely will as well, Berg explained, because the extension rate would be applied to the higher total property value.

There is some good news about the preliminary levy, however: While the county board may choose to lower it by the time the final levy is set in December, the $16.5 million total set at Tuesday's meeting cannot be increased, Berg said.

"This is the maximum levy the county can set," he added.

Berg had also noted at the meeting earlier that while the commissioners "may not get many pats on the back" for setting an 8.34 percent increase, he feels "it's a pretty good budget."

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454