By Emily Bialkowski
A single dissenting vote didn’t stop the Houston County Board from adopting the 2014 levy, which includes a 3.52 percent increase. Commissioner Justin Zmyewski said he could not approve the spending trend, which has seen the levy grow from $2.99 million in 2005 to a predicted $6.2 million in 2014.
“We can’t continue at this rate. We can’t keep turning a blind eye to it,” Zmyewski said during the Dec. 17 meeting where he cast his no vote.
Despite the levy increase, budget projections show a $35,547 deficit in 2014. Such deficits have historically been covered by the general fund, which continues to dive downward. In 2005 the general revenue fund balance hovered around $5.9 million. By 2013 that number dipped to $4.7 million. The general fund balance is important to the county because it pays all the bills until tax money starts coming in.
Zmyewski pressed his colleagues, asking if they have any intent to adopt a zero percent increase one year.
Commissioner Teresa Walter said she felt the board has done their due diligence. “Where else can we cut? We’ve gone over these budgets in detail,” she said. “I think all of us want to get down to zero percent if we can.”
County Finance Director Carol Lapham presented a chart that highlighted how the current spending trend will double the levy within the next 10 years. When asked what the county’s biggest expense is, Lapham said it’s really a combination of all the departments.
“We just have a lot of departments,” she said.
Budget issues are discussed all year, and a clear picture of how the county came out in 2013 won’t be available until January 2014. Zmyewski had pressed all year for conservative spending to pay back the general fund, but Lapham said that won’t happen until the revenue comes in higher than expected and the expenditures come in lower.
Home health increase
In an effort to better recoup the cost to provide home health aide services, Interim Public Health Director Mary Thompson proposed instituting a $55 per hour flat fee. The fee currently slides down to $20 per hour for those who qualify, and the county is coming out behind because of it.
For example, Thompson said, a client in Houston is seen by an aide from La Crescent. Once salary, benefits and mileage is paid, it costs the county $70, $44 of which is reimbursed.
Thompson said existing clients would be phased out of the reduced fee schedule, but new admissions will start at the $55 rate. She also said clients who pay a reduced fee would be able to pay a full fee if they went on a state health plan.
Commissioner Judy Storlie applauded the department for its review of the matter.
“I’m glad you took this forward,” Storlie said.
The request passed unanimously.
Human Resources Director Tess Arrick-Krueger presented two resignations for approval.
The first was from Public Health Nurse Jan Lochner, who has worked for the county for 20 years. Lochner is leaving to join a former colleague in Iowa, Arrick-Krueger said.
The item met approval, though initiating a search for a replacement has been stalled by the department’s interim director, who said staffing issues should be looked at by whomever is selected as the permanent director.
The second resignation was from Assistant County Attorney Araysa Ashmore, who has worked for the county since 2008. She is leaving to join a private firm in La Crosse.
Her resignation was approved, as was initiating a search for her replacement.
“We’re losing a great attorney, but we’re happy for her. We probably won’t be happy to see her in the courtroom,” County Attorney Jamie Hammell said.
Lastly, the board agreed to hire Jena Benson as a 67-day, temporary drop site employee.
Traffic control study
Several weeks ago, the County Board reviewed two proposals for traffic studies in and around the city of La Crescent. The city is aggressively pursuing putting in bicycle lanes or paths, and County Engineer Brian Pogodzinski said he believes now is the time for the county to initiate its own traffic study.
But the two proposals came in at $23,300 and $10,000, and the board wanted more information on the proposals’ cost difference. After further review, the firm Bolton & Mink reduced their proposal to $14,960 by excluding two items the other firm, WHKS, didn’t have.
The board decided to proceed with the traffic study from Bolton & Mink since WHKS is already representing La Crescent.
“I like that they represent us,” Commissioner Steve Schuldt said.
The expense will be paid for out of the Highway Department’s consultant budget.
Zoning Administrator Bob Scanlan presented a final plat from Nick Tessing for his single-family residence in Money Creek. Scanlan said this is the second-to-last step for Tessing, whose request has already been reviewed by the county treasurer, auditor, surveyor and township. The last step will be getting the plat recorded at the surveyor’s office. The plat received County Board approval.
Also from the zoning office was a request to compensate Planning and Zoning commissioners and Board of Adjustment members for work on the ordinance study committee.
Planning and Zoning commissioners currently receive $100 per meeting, and Board of Adjustment members receive $85 per meeting. Members on both boards have devoted a great deal of time to the ordinance study committee and have asked for a stipend of some kind.
“This is extra work above and beyond what they have been doing,” Scanlan said.
The study committee is working on updating the zoning code, an all-encompassing document of land use rules in the county.
“This is something we need done,” Storlie said and recommended $50 per meeting.
“They are doing house-cleaning items. I’m glad they are doing this,” Zmyewski agreed.
The request passed unanimously.
In a somewhat related matter, Schuldt suggested the study committee review the new ordinance on Planning Commission term limits, as he is concerned there will be a mass exodus of experience from the commission. Scanlan agreed to add the item to the list.
Frac sand moratorium
Under the commissioner reports section of the meeting, Walter updated the board on the frac sand moratorium. She said she spoke with the county’s land use attorney, Jay Squires, who will prepare the paperwork to extend Houston County’s moratorium until March 2015.
A public hearing will take place on the matter, most likely in January, though a date has not yet been set.
For the second time, resident Bets Reedy implored the board to start addressing climate change. Reedy recommended creating three committees to focus on: agriculture and forestry; health; and conservation and renewable energy. The board did not act on the recommendation.