With a road of challenges ahead, the Wadena County board approved the 2022 preliminary levy as a 4.91% increase.

The budget committee begins meeting each spring and department leaders send their budgets throughout the summer. The preliminary budget is submitted to the state in September. The budget is reviewed until the final levy is set in December. Commissioner Murlyn Kreklau and Jon Kangas serve on the budget committee.

“We sit at 4.91, that’s obviously not a finished number. We would like to see it way lower than that but without knowing any health insurance or seeing other places where we can save money right now, that is where we sit,” county auditor-treasurer Heather Olson shared with commissioners on Sept. 14.

An initial levy had come in at 6%, which Olson noted as “isn’t acceptable.”

Here’s a look at past preliminary levies:

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The county budget sits around $30 million with approximately $10 million of funding from the levy and $20 million from grants, state aid and federal money, according to Olson.

One of the large unknown costs comes in health insurance, which are shared at the end of September. The county saw a 10% increase in these costs for 2021 and expects a 7% increase for 2022. The costs are shared between the county and employees.

Kangas said the majority of the county’s costs are labor and benefits, which are not easily reflected in the budget. With the county’s low incomes and high property taxes compared to area counties, he added that costs need to decrease.

“We need to be looking at a 0% increase or a reduction, this can’t continue, that’s the way I see it, it just can’t,” Kangas said. “Especially when you start looking at the statistics that are coming out after the Census, the people don’t have the money to pay the taxes.”

When asked for ideas on which services to cut, Kangas said one specific idea would not represent the whole board and suggested more research on ideas like leaving the Prairie Lakes Municipal Solid Waste Authority agreement, contracting services and removing transfer station hours. The board again hopes for more work sessions to include ideas from commissioners, constituents and department leaders on the budget and service items.

Commissioner Bill Stearns and Kreklau said Wadena County can’t be run the same way as counties with larger tax bases. They plan to invite representatives to a future board meeting to see this.

The county does not have the funds to increase allocations, including for the Kitchigami Regional Library System, Wadena County Humane Society and Ag Society as requested, according to Olson. The highway department also worked to save money, including with equipment purchases that will be funded through the federal Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act.

Highway department equipment purchases

The county received $138,188 from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act. County engineer Ryan Odden said the funds will mean a $25,000 decrease in the highway department budget. The savings will help with the 2022 levy and hopefully into 2023.

The funds will be used to purchase a skid steer, tractor and pack roller. The equipment pieces, except the pack roller, were part of the highway department’s replacement plan. A rented roller is used in the summer for culvert and catch basin repairs.

The funds could go towards road projects that need more funding, such as Greenwood Avenue, though commissioners favored the immediate and long-term budget reduction with the equipment purchases. After receiving them at the beginning of the month, the funds must be designated by the end of September. Area counties are also using the funds for replacement equipment, according to Odden.

Kangas said he was not in favor of the quick notion of the items as well as the expectation that the items would be approved. He hopes for more discussions on strategic planning.

The board approved:

  • Designating the CRRSAA funds for equipment replacement. Kangas voted against.

  • Purchasing a 2022 skid steer for $73,255. Kangas voted against.

  • Purchasing a 2022 tractor for $57,502.26. Kangas voted against.

  • Purchasing a 1997 pack roller for $7,500. Kangas and Mike Weyer voted against.

  • Selling a 2008 McCormick CX95 Tractor on MinnBid for a minimum price of $16,000.