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Wadena Board sets zero-increase preliminary levy amount

At the Sept. 10 special board meeting, Wadena County Commissioners voted not to increase the 2013 pay 2014 property tax preliminary levy.

The preliminary levy was set at the same amount as last year: $7,902,775. The preliminary levy is set after commissioners conclude most of their work on the proposed county budget for the following year. A final levy amount will be voted upon on Dec. 19.

After setting the preliminary levy amount, commissioners can reduce it, but not increase it. This means that there will be no county property tax rate increase on property tax bills payable in 2014.

Commissioners were able to agree to a zero-increase because county department heads were careful in compiling the budgets for their individual departments, and careful in spending the funds allocated to them during 2013.

A certain amount of luck was also a factor, because the county was able to cover its few unexpected expenses by using reserve funds and shifting funds among accounts. No major unforeseen events affected county departments, and payments from FEMA and the Minnesota Department of Homeland Security reimbursed the county for costs incurred from rebuilding after the 2010 tornado.

The county benefited from a smaller-than-expected increase in employee health insurance costs for 2014.

Commissioners Jim Hofer and Bill Stearns, and Auditor/Treasurer Judy Taves spoke in favor of at least a 1 percent increase in the preliminary levy amount, "just in case", but were eventually persuaded by Commissioners Ron Noon and Rodney Bounds that the county could cover its expected expenses with existing monies.

After the levy vote, commissioners turned to the issue of a county one-half percent sales tax to be devoted to road and bridge projects. The 2013 Minnesota Legislature approved a bill giving counties the opportunity to impose such a tax. A public hearing must be held before commissioners vote to approve the tax. Counties must give a 90-day notice to taxpayers before instituting a sales tax. If approved by a county board, the one-half percent sales tax would take effect on the first day of the next calendar quarter.

The one-half percent sales tax, if approved, would not apply to food, clothing, or other items currently exempt from sales tax. Consensus at a prior county meeting was that the amount of the tax is so small that most consumers would not notice it. On a purchase of $50, the tax would total 10 cents.

But the tax would raise a significant amount of money for local road projects. County Engineer Ryan Odden provided information to the county in July on the funding needed to maintain the several hundred miles of county roads in Wadena County. He told commissioners that according to currently accepted road maintenance standards, the Highway Department needs $134,742 to be spent on gravel to be spread on 165 miles of gravel roads in order to provide each road with new gravel every 10 years. In addition, the Highway Department needs $154,000 each year to stick to a schedule of providing mill and overlay once every 30 years on 49 miles of paved county roads. The total of $288,000 could be covered by the one-half percent sales tax.

Commissioners voted to set a date of Monday, Oct. 21, at 6 PM for a public hearing in the Courthouse auditorium to explain the proposed one-half percent sales tax to the public.