Houston County Board Commissioner
Policy makers need to understand the economic and financial consequences of their decisions. A progressive board of policy makers is receptive to new concepts and techniques. This would be a board who wants to key into the “big picture.” My hope is, and has been, for the county board to be just that, progressive.
Since 2005, the local Houston County tax levy (the dollars you pay) has doubled from just over $5 million to over $10 million. If the county board continues this style of management, the tax levy, in 10 years will be nearly $16 million. This does not account for the Wheel Tax (I voted against) implemented in Houston County earlier this year that will generate $196,000 of additional income from the constituents annually. While the tax levy has increased the general fund (the county savings account/emergency savings account) has decreased significantly and must be a priority to replenish. On Dec. 17 the board once again voted 4-1 to increase county taxes by 3.52 percent adding $381,000 of new tax dollars to the county budget. This is the highest tax increase the State of Minnesota would allow the county. I was the lone “no” vote. The commissioner from Caledonia called this “the cost of doing county business.” While I respect the commissioner and his opinion, I call it “the price of poor management on the part of the board.” Couple this with the previously mentioned Wheel Tax and you have the constituents shouldering $577,000 in new tax dollars for next year.
The data that I’ve included in this commentary does not lie. It shows the “big picture.” In my opinion, it shows that Houston County is on course for a financial train wreck. Oddly enough, this is data that the commissioner from La Crescent (Judy Storlie) refused to discuss prior to making the decision to increase the tax levy by 3.52 percent. New to the board in January of this year, I have become well aware that first-year Commissioner Storlie is not shy when it comes to county dollars, as she has never voted “no” to a tax increase or to an expenditure request. As this is a democratic republic, I’m choosing to represent the constituents of district #2 from a taxpayer’s point of view.
“If you bring a problem, bring a solution.” What’s my solution to the county budget? The county has to restructure the way in which business is being done. The board has to become proactive rather than reactive. Being reactive is to remain “status quo” (business as usual) and go to the taxpayers every year for more dollars or dip into the general fund. We as a board have to drill down and take a close look at the services the county can afford to offer. The board has to be creative and look at combining services with neighboring counties. This is practical thinking. It is a must that we prioritize spending. Replacing equipment must be a need and not a want. Building projects have to be an absolute necessity and practical, keeping the expense of it within “taxpayer” reason. Overtime pay cannot be taken for granted. The line has to be held on salary increases in times when lean management is essential. The heartbeat of Houston County is the employees and periodic raises are essential. There has to be an understanding that it’s not fair to the taxpayers to allow raises and then increase taxes. We have to manage the budget in a manner in which periodic salary increases are the norm, while at the same time the line is held on tax increases. It is a sacrifice for everyone involved. Ask a Minnesota State employee how many years they went without a salary increase; they made the sacrifice along with the taxpayers in these recent lean years. Note that 55 percent of the tax levy increase for next year of $381,000 (3.52 percent) is for salary increases and health benefits. Additionally, new tax dollars that increase the county budget by $381,000 pay for an increase for elected officials in the upcoming year. We as a board cannot act as employees of the county, we must be the leaders and managers we were elected to be.
It may very well be that my fellow commissioners would tell you that the board did everything possible to cut the budget. While I agree that for the most part the county is running lean, I respectfully disagree that the board did everything possible to cut the budget. From my point of view, what I call superficial or surface cuts were made. The same commissioners who voted for a tax increase chose not to look at a reduction in county services or personnel and are holding off opportunities to combine county services with our neighboring counties even though Houston County has been invited to the table to begin talks. The wage increase for elected officials was not cut out of the 3.52 percent tax increase.
If the county does not restructure our spending, then your taxes will continue to rise. This is no different than what well managed rural school districts have been doing for years in lean times. Programs are reduced, superintendents double as principals or become part time, principals teach, programs are combined with other school districts and transportation is contracted to an outside source, etc. It’s no different than living within our own household budget.
Did Houston County have a reduction in state aid? Absolutely. Does the county have a $27 million Justice Center to pay for and maintain? We do. Is the county population increasing? No. Is the population of senior citizens increasing? Yes. Did we have flood damage this year? Unfortunately we did. Does the court house need a new roof? It does. I believe these questions give us more reasons to restructure. There has to be an awakening. County business cannot continue on as usual. We cannot let the best kept secret in the State of Minnesota “Houston County” become too expensive for us to live.
A note of interest is that Fillmore County has a zero percent tax increase for next year and voted no to the Wheel Tax earlier this year. I realize the difficulties of comparing county budgets, but I wonder about how they manage their money.
I wish to tell you like it is. “Keeping you informed and involved.” From time to time I have separated myself from decisions that were made by the board. In this case I cannot take responsibility for these tax increases as I represent the taxpayers. The bottom line is, if we are not on the right track, then we are on a collision course for fiscal irresponsibility.
In closing, I would like to personally thank the department heads, elected officials and county employees who do look out for the best interest of you, the taxpayer. Please know that I do respect the good people of the board, but also know that I am passionate about representing the constituency.
Justin Zmyewski is the Houston County Board Chair and represents District 2.