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County looks at slight increase in property tax rate

Committee OKs budget projects a tax rate of $8.16 per $1,000 of value

Taylor County taxpayers could see a slight increase in the overall county tax levy this year.

On Tuesday, members of the county’s finance committee put the finishing touches on the 2021 county budget dipping into fund balance to the tune of $300,000 in order to bring it into balance. This will bring the projected tax rate to about $8.16 per $1,000 of equalized value. This is $.03 per $1,000 higher than the current budget, but still below the $8.36 per $1,000 rate in 2019.

According to Brandl, the overall levy will increase by about 3.6%.

The budget calls for a 1% across the board wage increase for county employees. According to Marie Koerner, the consumer price index used by the county for union negotiations is at about 1.56%. The 1% increase is in addition to any longevity step increases scheduled for 2020 under the county’s pay grid.

According to Koerner, the 1% increase translates to about $89,000 added to the county budget.

At the same time county employees will see a slight pay increase, they will be picking up more of the cost of their health insurance premiums. Koerner projects that the raise will not cover the additional cost of insurance paid by county employees.

On Sept. 16, members of the county’s finance and personnel committees approved an 85%/15% split for insurance premiums. Previously, county employees paid 10% if they were on the narrow network plan and 18% if they were on the broad network plan. The county has switched to offering only a broad network plan. This results in reduction in premiums for the handful of employees who had been on the broad plan but a signifi- cant increase for the 123 county employee who had been on the narrow plan.

Koerner estimated these employees would see the amount taken out of their payroll increase by 60% or about $1,200 per year. “That is a pretty big amount to consume,” Koerner said.

She proposed a 1.5% wage increase, which she noted would still not make the employees even against the additional amount of premium expenses the county is shifting to them, but would put the county in the ballpark.

Committee members expressed frustration at being up against an ongoing county levy freeze. The longtime state freeze allows the county to increase rates to pay off debt or increase the levy by the amount of net new construction in the tax base.

Committee member Tim Hansen said he felt the finance and personnel committees made the right call when setting the 85%/15% split. He noted that under the county’s previous plan the employees would have been paying 20% of the insurance costs about five years ago, but the county was able to keep rates down since then.

“We have done pretty well at keeping costs down,” Hansen said.

Committee chairman Chuck Zenner noted that Medicare is an 80%/20% split.

In July, the committee had directed departments to prepare budgets with a 2% decrease in operational expenses. The personnel portion of the budgets, which includes the bulk of expenses for many departments, is set at the county board level. With a handful of exceptions, departments were able to reduce operational budgets of the requested amount, yet according to county finance director Larry Brandl, the county was facing a $600,000 shortfall.

The county was able to reduce a portion of that through insurance changes and shifting additional premium costs to county employees, but it still left the county with a sizable hole.

Brandl proposed filling that with a combination of additional borrowing for road projects and tapping into fund balance. Committee member Scott Mildbrand proposed taking the funds needed from those earmarked for upcoming dam projects and the land acquisition funds in the forestry budget.

In addition to work next year to replace the sluice gate at Miller Dam, the county is looking ahead to projects at Chelsea Dam and Camp 8 Dam. Midlbrand noted that the money the county is looking at borrowing includes the dam projects so the money set aside in the account wouldn’t be needed. He also said additional land purchases in the county forest were unlikely to be approved anytime soon, so saw that as a source of funds.

A portion of the revenue from all timber sales in the county goes into a land acquisition fund, which is used to purchase land if it becomes available. By ordinance it is capped at $500,000 and currently has a balance of about $300,000. This has been a source of funds to help balance the county budget in the past.

Brandl was hesitant to deplete the dam account noting the Chelsea and Miller Dam projects are two years away and the final costs for them is not yet known. Rather than designating which reserve funds to tap, Brandl said he preferred to keep it general.

With the budget review sessions completed, the budget will advance to the full county board at the October meeting for review and approval. While board members may make changes to it at that time, historically there are usually only minor changes from what is recommended by the finance committee.