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Locals suggest cut taxes or cut up county

Wadena County taxes are on the rise, leading some to consider cutting up the county with the hope of increasing the tax base. Pioneer Journal illustration

Two Wadena County residents spoke before Wadena County commissioners Monday night with a plea to cut back taxes any way possible.

The plea came during the Truth in Taxation meeting, a meeting where residents have a chance to comment on proposed taxing in the county. As of Tuesday, commissioners were looking at a $22 million budget to offer its services including law enforcement, road maintenance, human services needs, public health, record keeping, economic development, land management and court services.

Commissioner Bill Stearns summarized the budget, noting that Wadena County taxpayers are responsible for $9 million of the $22 million total. The remaining comes from state and federal taxes.

In order to cover the costs of areas of the budget that have seen increases in recent years, the commissioners were looking at a 4.19 percent increase to the tax levy. That increase could be attributed to increasing costs of child welfare including foster care; more mental health cases; and drug related arrests have increased. These cases involve costly testing and advanced care.

Stearns drove home the point that the county is the delivery truck of the state legislature. In other words, the county is mandated by the state to offer certain services. Whatever the state cannot fund, the county must fund in order to provide the resources.

While the initial increase is over 4 percent, commissioners Jim Hofer and Chuck Horsager continue to meet and say they have hopes of dropping the increase closer to a 3 percent increase after telling departments to continue to chop away at their budgets. The final levy must be approved in December.

While only two members of the public attended concerned about seeing an increase to taxes, the two spoke at length with commissioners about their own struggles to pay bills and pay taxes in one of the poorest counties of the state, with considerably high taxes in comparison to other counties with similar characteristics.

One of the men brought concerns of the high wages paid to county employees. He even asked for a job with the county, saying he currently works four jobs trying to support his family and farm and he would gladly take a county job in order to get good pay and benefits. He said his children are moving out of the county to avoid the high taxes and find higher wages.

"They've got full health on us," Troy Barrett of Staples said of county employees. He noted that he was attending the meeting in pain, not only from the cost of living but from being injured by his cattle. He felt he probably should have gone to the hospital to check his ribs, but he couldn't afford the cost of that either.

Commissioner Jim Hofer responded understanding the pressure on tax payers, but said that a recent study they had done showed that the county is paying 14 employees higher than the average rate in the region, while they are underpaying 76 employees. Human Services Director Tanya Leskey added that Human Services staffing costs are well below the state average.

Barrett still suggested comparing county jobs to county jobs, was not a close comparison to the remaining working class.

Hofer added that despite competitive wages, the county continues to lose employees and the costs of advertising for those jobs and training new employees is one they would like to avoid.

Barret again brought forth his concern that increases are unrealistic, when county tax payers like him are not seeing increases to their pay.

"There is no money left," he said. "That money is not a never-ending pot."

The other man attending, Scott Erickson of Sebeka, said half his wages were going to taxes. He wanted to see no increase to taxes this year.

"If you can trim a little more that would be great," Barrett said.

Stearns mentioned that he appeared before the state legislature with the other commissioners in years past bringing up the point that Wadena County has a low tax base but a high tax rate.

"How can you get relief for my people?" Stearns said, recalling his past request. "They listened but that was about it."

The two men appreciated what the county was able to provide, but noted that the county taxpayers could not be squeezed anymore.

Barrett even mentioned cutting up Wadena County to join other area counties in order to have a larger tax base. Commissioners said that thought was one they too have considered, but noted it would again take an act of state legislature.

In closing the meeting, commissioners and those in attendance remained civil in conversations and agreed that anything they can do to cut the taxes should be considered.

Others in attendance at the start of the meeting were there with concerns of their individual tax increases. Those residents were asked to meet with the County Assessor Lee Brekke downstairs to discuss their own tax evaluations.

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