The Chisago County Board managed to keep its preliminary property-tax levy below zero percent, but did so by reaching into the county savings account.
At the end of a more than three-hour meeting Sept. 5, the board approved a levy of $31,397,021, which is about $270,000 less than the final levy approved last year.
The total preliminary budget was approved at an amount of $51,716,303.
Reaching into contingency
At the beginning of the night, the county’s contingency fund stood at $750,000.
The board voted to allocate some of that money to numerous areas, and as a result the preliminary contingency fund dropped to $514,950.
County Commissioner Mike Robinson expressed concern that the amount that was left in the contingency fund was too low, but the board did not come to a consensus to take money from anywhere other than contingency to fund county programs.
Historically, the county’s yearly contingency fund has been in the $600,000 to $750,000 range.
One new area the board earmarked money toward was added security at the Government Center.
A total of $150,000 was allotted to staff a security presence at the entrance to the Government Center next year and make other improvements that would enhance the safety of the building.
Next, the board tackled an issue presented to the county by the city of North Branch.
North Branch is currently without a city planner after the departure of Al Cottingham, and had asked the county to hire a planner who would split his or her time between the city and the county.
The board approved the position, which is budgeted at $45,000 a year for a two-year trial period, by a 3-2 vote with commissioners Robinson and Lora Walker dissenting.
“Having a planner is a luxury item and I don’t think we’re in a position to give away luxury money,” Robinson said.
Walker added, “From North Branch’s perspective, this is continued government because they’ve had this position. From our perspective, at this time, it’s growth and I don’t think it’s the right time.”
Another area where the county will be adding staff is in the engineering department.
Messelt recommended hiring an assistant county engineer at a cost of $100,000.
He said the county was spending about $150,000 a year by contracting out some engineering services, so by hiring an assistant county engineer the county would be saving $50,000.
The board unanimously went along with the staff recommendation to hire an assistant county engineer.
The board also set a Truth in Taxation public hearing date at meeting. That meeting is scheduled for Dec. 5 at 6 p.m.
Health insurance spike
Also during the budget portion of the meeting, Messelt mentioned a concerning health insurance premium increase.
Messelt said the county had budgeted for premiums to increase by 4 percent, but the county received word Sept. 4 that premiums would be increasing by 16.1 percent.
“We’re a little shocked at that number,” he said. “What that means (for the county) is there’s approximately $320,000 to $370,000 in increased healthcare costs going into the projected budget for next year, depending upon the level of employee contributions.”
Messelt noted the rise is equivalent to roughly a 2-percent cost of living adjustment.
“That’s the bad news,” he said. “The good news is we have budgeted for a total package of a 2-percent cost of living plus that 4-percent healthcare cost.”
Messelt said the increase could cause problems when it comes to negotiating employee contracts.
“That means that when we go into labor negotiations, we’re basically saying, ‘You get healthcare covered or you get a cost of living and pay more for healthcare.’ It’s going to be a tough thing.”