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Stevens Co. Board of Commissioners passes preliminary levy increase of 8.83 percent

MORRIS - The Stevens County Board of Commissioners voted 4 to 1 to approve a preliminary levy increase of 8.83 percent, about $523,000, for 2013.

"I know this is a preliminary budget, but I don't know if I'm comfortable approving it," said Commissioner Ron Staples before casting his dissenting vote.

"It's with great reservation that I recommend we preliminarily approve this and continue to work on it," said Commissioner Paul Watzke. "We have increased personnel costs and we have a significant drop in county program aid. Until that changes, this is what we need to continue to do business as usual."

The total preliminary budget for 2013 includes about $13.2 million in expenditures and $6.8 in revenues, including anticipated county program aid of about $516,000.

Most of the $523,000 levy increase comes from a decrease in county program aid and an increase in county personnel costs.

In 2012, Stevens County received $695,053 in county program aid; in 2013, they are certified to receive only $516,232 - a decrease of $178,821 or almost 26 percent.

At the same time, the preliminary budget also includes a proposed increase in county personnel costs of about $160,000 which includes an additional IT technician, a new GIS technician, and a 2.5 percent cost of living increase for all non-union employees. Union employees have also negotiated a 1.25 percent increase for 2013.

Over the last month, the board has met in three work sessions to try and lower the proposed levy. A first version of the proposed budget presented in August included a levy increase of 9.64 percent. In their work sessions, the board made some cuts to expenses and increased a spend down of reserves to bring the increase down to 8.83 percent.

At Tuesday's meeting, Staples said he still wanted to look at not increasing appropriations to groups like the Stevens County Economic Improvement Commission, Viking Regional Library System, Extension, and Ag Society. Staples also said he was concerned about adding additional employees.

"I know it's preliminary, so we can make changes, but historically after it's preliminarily approved we very seldom make any changes," said Staples.

In 2011, the board passed a preliminary budget that included a levy increase of 8.19 percent, but were able to lower the levy to 7.22 percent by making some small adjustments.

Local governments are required to pass a preliminary budget and levy in September. The budget passed Tuesday can be lowered, but not increased, before a final adoption in December.

Board approves tax forfeiture for five properties in Stevens County

The board approved putting five tax-forfeited properties in Stevens County up for sale at a public auction on Thursday, Sept. 27 at 10:00 a.m. at the Stevens County Courthouse.

The properties are located across the county - two in Donnelly, one in Alberta, and two in Hancock. The board set a minimum price of $500 for each property. Any special assessments on the property will continue with the new owners, said County Auditor/Treasurer Neil Wiese.

The property with the highest assessed value was 201 Fourth Street in Donnelly, which was assessed at $21,700 ($4,000 for the land). The other available property in Donnelly is a bare lot at 105 Fifth Street, assessed at $1,900.

The second most expensive property is in Hancock - 573 Sixth Street, a building in downtown Hancock valued at $12,000. Wiese told the board that the building is connected to two others downtown, and that demolishing it could cost $10,000.

The second property in Hancock is a lot with a small garage at 621 Second Street, assessed at $3,900. The property in Alberta, 402 First Avenue, is valued at $3,800.

Weise said that in the last eight years, the county had only had a tax forfeiture auction on one other property. Potential buyers can contact Weise to arrange an inspection or to see the property ahead of the auction on Sept. 27.

Highway Department has slow start to mowing season; construction projects nearing completion

Some equipment problems at the Highway Department have led to a slow start to the mowing season, but County Engineer Brian Giese told the board the department will focus on that area in September.

The department is also working on blading gravel roads to prepare for winter and addressing county ditch issues as that arise.

All 2012 construction projects are complete, save for work on CSAH 9 in Alberta. Giese said he expected the Alberta project to wrap up by mid-September.

The board also approved the purchase of a side-by-side ATV to replace the department's current ATV. Giese said he planned to purchase a John Deere XUV 825i Gator for $10,956 plus tax, minus a $1,500 trade in for the current ATV.

Other business

• The board reclassified the position of deputy auditor-treasurer/elections to reflect an increase in responsibilities as of July 1, 2011 and approved $1,942 in back pay for the position.

• The board approved a budget and levy increase of $5,210 for the Stevens County Housing and Redevelopment Authority. HRA Director Jodi DeCamp told the board that the HRA has brought in about a half-million dollars in grants and programs to the county.

• The board approved a snowmobile train maintenance and grooming grant agreement from the State of Minnesota on behalf of the West Central Trailblazers for about $71,000.

• The board was reminded about two upcoming meetings for the county ditch system: an informal meeting on Monday, Sept. 10 at 6:00 p.m. at the Chokio City Hall to discuss potential repair and wetland restoration projects on County Ditch 22 and a public hearing on a petition for outlet on County Ditch 25 on Tuesday, Sept. 18 at 10:00 a.m. at the Stevens County Courthouse.