Wadena County hoping to narrow levy to near 2% increase
The plan is to use a portion of the county’s cash balance, at about $1 million, to help lower the levy.
Wadena County’s preliminary levy for 2022 remains at 4.91% but the plan in motion will hopefully bring it down to around 2%.
That’s the plan county auditor-treasurer Heather Olson presented during the Truth in Taxation meeting on Monday, Nov. 29. The Truth in Taxation meeting shows where taxpayers’ dollars go in the county budget and offers time for public comment. Three community members shared their concerns about the budget increases, including Phil Iverson and Thomastown Township chairperson Troy Barrett.
Commissioner Bill Stearns was not present, and commissioners Mike Weyer and Jon Kangas participated remotely.
The county’s budget is about $27-30 million. The levy represents about $10.14 million, or $10,145,228, of the budget. The remaining funds come from federal and state aid. The levy’s increase is due to payroll and benefit costs, as Olson said.
Of the proposed increases, revenue would see a 5.89% increase, road and bridge 2.09% and Human Services 4.19%. Both the Public Health and building funds will have no increases. Commissioner Sheldon Monson highlighted the work of Public Health and Human Services to help offset the levy, including grants and staffing changes.
In June 2020, Olson said the county recognized that “things needed to slow” and the board approved a spending freeze. With this, the departments saved about $1 million. Departments also made cuts, increased allocations were denied and the county found a cheaper auditing firm. The plan is to use a portion of the county’s cash balance, at about $1 million, to help lower the levy.
Olson will present the plan to the budget committee, which includes commissioners Murlyn Kreklau and Kangas. The committee’s goal is to lower the levy.
“I also live here. I also have to pay the taxes. I’m also not happy about it, and my job is to find ways to relieve that number,” Olson said. While working to lower the levy, commissioners also emphasized how they live and pay taxes in the county.
The county’s payroll costs came as the three community members’ first concern, such as the “big city wages,” as Iverson said, for county leaders. Iverson asked why these wages don’t bring better results as the county is often “on the bottom tier of almost any bad statistic that there is” in the state.
“We’ve got to just divide this place up and give us to the rest of the counties around here,” Barrett said. “$30 million dollars on the back of 14,000 people and only half of that 14,000 are actually making a living. … We don’t have $30 million dollars between 7,000 people here to be making up. … We’ve got to stop this.”
Another community member said it would be “refreshing” if property taxes between the counties were compared like the wages. Kangas said county property taxes in Hubbard and Becker counties are 50% less than Wadena County while household income and per capita income are 25% less in Wadena County.
Iverson asked what the levy raises are for. For 2021, the levy was set at a 3.73% increase and a 2.81% increase for 2020.
“Where does the money go?” Barrett asked. He shared similar concerns at the Truth in Taxation meeting in 2018.
RELATED ARTICLE: Wadena County sets preliminary levy of 4.91%
The county needs more taxpayers which requires economic development, as community members said. The county partners with The Economic Alliance on economic discussions and projects.
Commissioners also noted 29 parcels returning to the tax rolls following the tax-forfeited land sale, Kal’s Kars North expansion , Voyageur Industries expanding to Staples, houses by the Menahga golf course, apartments in Staples, housing developments in Wadena and the Line 3 pipeline as positive developments.
Commissioners agreed with the community members, and noted discussions over the past several months that are geared towards saving the county money. Commissioners have discussed cutting services , combining departments , accessory dwelling units adding to the tax base and having a combined northern Highway Department shop.
In a series of upcoming strategic planning work sessions , commissioners will discuss the county committees, road and bridge, sheriff’s department, human services, public health and the budget at the end of regular board meetings. The schedule is available on the county website.
Community members also discussed topics brought up by the board such as the county fairgrounds, which continues to have projects. The county funds the fairgrounds at $28,000 yearly. “Something that’s used four days a year doesn’t need to have thousands dropped on it by the taxpayers. Period,” Olson said. The fairgrounds drainage project is funded by state bonding dollars that were awarded to the city of Wadena for Hwy 10 in 2018. A separate water and sewer extension project is funded through the American Rescue Plan Act as approved by the county board.
The county has state required services, labor contract increases and health insurance increases that impact the budget, as commissioners said.
“Whose control is it then? Because half the people sitting in the room and across the room and in the other chambers, city and the other ones, whose is it then? It’s not us that make the decisions,” Iverson said. “You guys need to make the right decisions.”
Kreklau said the county is working to change, though commissioners noted the process will take several years. Commissioner Mike Weyer said the changes take thinking outside the box.
“When you get a county that is so small but yet we still have to have all these services and employees, it is not affordable and it’s not sustainable,” Kangas said.
“You don’t slow this train down overnight but you gotta start working on it and making plans and discussing,” Kreklau said. “I hope people come to those meetings that we have and give us input.”
Commissioners thanked community members for sharing and encouraged people to attend meetings, contact any commissioner and share their ideas and concerns. You can find the commissioners phone numbers and email addresses on the county website. The board meets on Tuesdays at 9 a.m. in the Wadena City Council chambers and on Zoom.
The 2022 final levy will be presented at the Dec. 14 board meeting.
If you have questions on your property value, you can contact county assessor Lee Brekke at email@example.com or 218-631-7628. One person present reviewed a change in their taxes, which will be further discussed with Brekke. These questions are yearly discussed at the city, township and county Board of Equalization meetings in the spring. Brekke said value increases are happening for many because of home sales in the county. The property values follow the market as values need to be within 90-105% of the sales.