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County levy hike at 4.6 percent

Though it was a short meeting of the Becker County Board on Tuesday, the commissioners did have at least one major task to take care of: certifying the preliminary 2009, payable 2008 property tax levy.

County taxpayers will be asked to pay a maximum of $17,263,004 next year -- an increase of 4.58 percent over the previous year's levy. Though the final levy will not be certified until December, taxpayers are assured of having to pay no more than that amount; the final levy cannot exceed the preliminary figure, though it can be decreased.

While the State Legislature did impose a property tax cap for the next three years during the 2008 session, several items were exempted from that cap, including not only the usual exemptions -- voter-approved special levies, bond (i.e., debt) payments and amounts required to correct errors in the certified levy -- but several others:

n Matching fund requirements for federal or state grants that exceed requirements in place in 2001.

n Reasonably and necessarily incurred expenses to prepare for or repair the effects of natural disasters.

n Funds for lake improvement districts.

n Increased employer pension contribution rates.

n Jail operation or maintenance costs that are the direct result of a rule, minimum requirements, minimum standard or directive of the Department of Corrections or as part of a regional jail.

n Repayment of state or federal loans for transportation projects as long as the project is not a local government initiative.

n Court administration costs.

n Funds for a storm sewer improvement district.

n Funds for a police or fire relief association.

n Funds for a city or county humane society.

n Abatements under Section 49.1815 (of the Minnesota tax code).

Also exempted from the tax cap was the levy imposed for the county's participation in the Lake Agassiz Regional Library system.

"We were asked to absorb a 7.2 percent increase (in the library levy)," said County Administrator Brian Berg. Though that increase was not legally included in the overall state cap, he added, the commissioners ultimately decided the county simply couldn't afford not to absorb as much of the increase into the cap as possible.

Other added budget expenses that the county has been asked to absorb for next year include the cost of providing a public defender for child custody cases (about $29,000 a year); a decrease in Homestead and Agricultural Credit Aid (HACA) from the state, in the amount of $4,554; and decreases in funding for various human services programs.

"The county board limited themselves, even in light of the state pushing these expenses back onto the county, to 4.58 percent," Berg said. "That includes all expenses, including the ones the state allows to go outside the levy limit."

With all these factors in mind, Berg added, "a 4.58 percent increase is a reasonable percentage -- though some are going to think even that's too much."

Also accounted for in the levy certification is the various costs associated with this year's increase in fuel prices.

"For our highway department, asphalt costs have also skyrocketed," Berg added as an example -- because asphalt is a petroleum-based product.

But the county is compensating for some of these costs in other areas. The courthouse addition that was completed this year, as well as ongoing renovations to the existing courthouse facilities, including a new, energy-efficient heating and cooling system that will help decrease fuel costs.

Another cost-saving measure resulting from the new addition will be the elimination of rent costs for the county attorney's office (previously housed in the Lincoln Professional Building) and the various offices contained in the courthouse annex.

Though the county is planning to continue housing the Department of Motor Vehicles in the annex, other offices such as veteran services, environmental services, planning and zoning will be moved into the courthouse, Berg said.

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