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County board OKs 3 percent levy increase

Becker County commissioners approved a 3 percent general fund levy hike for 2013, and they again declined to raise the EDA levy -- but neither vote was unanimous on Tuesday.

Board Chairman Larry Knutson voted against the proposed levy after other commissioners agreed to add $50,000 to the general fund budget, tentatively to be used against aquatic invasive species.

Knutson believes the board acted out of "political expediency" after the president of the Lake Detroiters Association, Barb Halbakken-Fischburg, pressured commissioners, asking why no money was in the 2013 budget to fight aquatic invasive species like zebra mussels.

(The county approved a $20,000 6-month contract this year to contract for an AIS coordinator, but that expires in mid October.)

Knutson said he doesn't agree with adding to the levy without a plan. The AIS proposal did not go through the budgeting process.

"There's no plan, there's no details," he said.

"We're looking at what we can do on AIS, but why levy $50,000 and collect it from taxpayers when we really don't have a plan yet?"

He said he and Commissioner Gerry Schram recently went to Park Rapids and talked at length with a DNR official there about zebra mussels. Knutson said he is not opposed to spending money to fight AIS, but objected to the process on Tuesday.

"I'm just trying to be real here," he said.

The levy passed 4-1, with Knutson voting no in protest.

The 2013 levy will be about $18.6 million.

The 3 percent levy hike represents about $532,000 (and includes the $50,000 for AIS).

The vote was 3-2 on the EDA levy, which remained at about $175,000, where it has been for several years.

Commissioner Don Skarie joined Knutson and Schram to pass it. Commissioners Barry Nelson and John Okeson voted against it.

A proposal to raise the EDA levy by 34 percent, a $60,000 increase, did not find support.

That leaves the housing and economic development authority about $100,000 short on its budget, said director Jon Thompson.

The other $40,000 would have come from undesignated EDA funds, he said.

Now the entire $100,000 will come from either undesignated EDA funds -- there is about $146,000 left in a former loan pool -- or from the parks and recreation budget.

Some $80,000 was included in that budget for 2013 and could be tapped, he said.

At issue is the salary of economic development coordinator Guy Fischer, who spent a lot of time developing the new parks and recreation plan, and who does a lot of grant writing for other departments. Some commissioners want to divide his salary among departments.

At Tuesday's meeting, Commissioner Barry Nelson pointed out that the board was planning to spend reserves by not raising the EDA levy.

"Just so we're clear," he said to Knutson, "you wish to deficit spend again for the EDA?"

"Deficit spending? In this case, yeah," Knutson said in the interview.

"He (Fischer) is only working one day a week at the EDA -- that's a lot of time to be parceled out (to other departments)."

Knutson said there is plenty of time for commissioners to work out the details of the housing and EDA budget before the budget is finalized at the end of the year.

At the meeting Tuesday, Auditor-Treasurer Ryan Tangen noted that the revenue shortfall at housing and EDA is actually coming from the housing side of things.

"County costs went from zero to $177,000 in (the last) seven years," he said, as administrative stipends that came with federal housing grants dried up.

Nelson and Okeson both sit on the EDA Board, which would like to place Fischer under the supervision of new county administrator Jack Ingstad.

Fischer is currently supervised by Thompson, and the tension between the two is palpable when they appear together at county board meetings.

"He (Ingstad) may also want to come to the EDA meeting," Nelson said, "with the understanding that there will be drastic changes in two years in housing and EDA."

Both Thompson and Detroit Lakes Housing Authority Director Gordy Grabow will retire in two years, and there has been talk of a consolidated position then, since most of the county-managed housing stock is in Detroit Lakes.

Skarie said he also would favor having Fischer supervised by Ingstad, who is slated to start work Monday.