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County will pursue state performance standards for levy limits exemption

WILLMAR -- Kandiyohi County is hoping its participation in a new performance program that rates the value of counties in 10 key areas -- ranging from crime to parks -- will give it flexibility in raising property taxes.

The voluntary "performance management program" was approved last year by the Legislature. Counties and cities are being asked now whether they want to participate or not.

The information generated from the program will help residents, taxpayers, and state and local elected officials in determining the efficacy of counties and cities providing services. It will also measure residents' opinions of those services, according to information the state auditor sent recently to counties and municipalities.

Participants must adopt the 10 performance "benchmarks" and file a report with the state by July 1, 2012.

The trade off for the extra voluntary reporting could be additional state aid -- about $6,000 for Kandiyohi County -- and being exempt from local levy limitations.

All Minnesota counties are currently operating under levy limits set by the Legislature.

"It's like an anchor around each of our necks," said Kandiyohi County Administrator Larry Kleindl, in a presentation this week to the county commissioners.

The goal of levy limits is to retard the growth of property taxes.

The state sends financial aid to counties to reduce property taxes and to offset the costs counties incur by providing mandated state services.

Local government aid, however, has been cut in recent years and state mandates have been increasing.

That's put a squeeze on county finances and that's why the offer of being exempt from levy limits is such an attraction.

"That's the real incentive," Kleindl said, adding that having the ability to exceed levy limits doesn't mean the county would use that exemption.

Kandiyohi County's levy has always been below the maximum amount, he said.

Last year the county levied $27,163,333.

Commissioners could've levied as much as $27,507,490 under a complicated formula that includes population, payable market value, new construction and the different in market value from year to year.

The county is responsible and "accountable" to taxpayers and knows how to "live within its means," Kleindl said.

But having the ability to go above those limits could provide a "safety net" for the county in case of a crisis --a tornado, for example -- and extra revenue is needed to respond, Kleindl said.

Currently bond payments the county makes are not included in the levy limits. But that policy could change, he said, and going above levy limits would be necessary in order to have enough revenue to cover those expenses.

As part of the program, the county will use existing data collection procedures or develop new surveys to gather information on public safety, probation/corrections, public works, public health, social services, taxation, elections, veterans' services, parks and libraries.

Reports would be required annually to receive the benefits. Some of the details of the program, including what happens if survey results are not positive, won't be completed until February.

Kandiyohi County Commissioners approved participating in the program. Kleindl said he's hearing from other counties and cities that intend to present the program to their boards for action next week.

10 key areas

When gauging the effectiveness of counties, the state wants to know how well counties do in 10 areas.

- Public safety: Counties can submit data reported to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension on crimes like murder, rape, aggravated assault, burglary, forgery, narcotics and other charges. Or a citizen's rating of safety in the county can be submitted.

- Probation/corrections: Percent of offenders with a new felony conviction within three years of discharge.

- Public works: Hours to plow complete system during a snow event, average county pavement conditions rating or citizens' rating of road conditions.

- Public health: Life expectancy generally, and by sex and race, or behavioral risk factor surveillance system rating with a citizens' survey.

- Social services: Workforce participation rate among those receiving benefits and the percentage of children where there's a recurrence of maltreatment within 12 months following an intervention.

- Taxation: Level of assessment ratio

- Elections: Accuracy of post-election audit

- Veterans services: Percent of veterans surveyed who said their questions were answered when seeking benefit information from their County Veterans Office

- Parks: Citizens' rating of the quality of county parks, recreational programs and/or facilities

- Libraries: Number of annual visits per 1,000 residents

Carolyn Lange

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

(320) 894-9750