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Meeker County budget goes down but levy goes up

LITCHFIELD -- Despite a 1.6 percent decrease in the proposed budget figure, the amount Meeker County will levy is expected to increase 2.3 percent next year.

The preliminary $12.2 million levy was approved this week.

The commissioners cut the county's $25 million budget by about $400,000, said County Administrator Paul Virnig. It's the second year in a row such cuts were made.

Given the workload, Virnig said there is not a lot of room to make additional cuts.

Staff reductions made to save money have forced some departments, like family services, to have heavy, stressful caseloads.

A tight workforce in the Sheriff's Office is making it difficult to patrol all 640 square miles of the county 24 hours a day, Virnig said.

A slimmed-down Highway Department has reduced costs yet residents want roads maintained and cleaned "faster than ever."

"It just isn't as easy to keep going back in and cutting stuff," he said.

A reduction in state program aid is also blamed for the budget cuts and levy increases, he said.

The county was supposed to receive about $1 million in program aid this year but it instead received $778,000.

The county is supposed to get $927,000 next year. "We'll see what happens," said Virnig, sounding dubious. Considering that the state has "zero money in the bank" and has tapped out cost shifts and payment delays, Virnig said he doubts the state's promise of aid will hold true.

Sometimes lost state aid means extra costs to the county.

Meeker County's Public Health Department is losing $60,000 in federal and state aid next year. Their budget was cut by $30,000 but the county is picking up the other $30,000.

Another loss of revenue is because of decreased returns on investments. Virnig said the county could usually count on $500,000 in interest payments. Next year they expect to see $200,000.

An 18 percent jump in health insurance costs next year will also affect the county budget. Family health insurance plans cost $1,500 a month, with employees paying $600 a month.

With state employees paying about $200 a month for family health care coverage, Virnig said it isn't fair for state leaders to criticize local units of government for taxing and spending beyond their means when health care costs are not shared equally.

In other action:

- Conditional use permits were granted for two wind farms to erect a total of 24 wind turbines in the county. Under the plan, Danielson Wind Farms LLC of Atwater and Adams Wind Generations LLC of Cosmos will each construct 12 turbines that generate 19.8 megawatts of electricity. The permits were approved on the condition that development agreements, drainage system protection agreements and road use and repair agreements are approved by the host jurisdictions.

- The commissioners were informed that the county jail received a very favorable state review and that inspections now will have to be conducted only every two years.

- Tom Mathies, a volunteer with the Meeker County Sheriff's Office, has been awarded the 2010 Volunteer of the Year Award by the Minnesota State Sheriff's Association.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750