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Counties gain financial aid and get tax break with new legislation

WILLMAR - As they start sifting through last-minute legislation that was approved at the end of the session Monday, county officials are finding some good news, including increased aid and decreased sales taxes.

According to the Association of Minnesota Counties, legislators approved a $40 million increase in County Program Aid that will bring a 24 percent increase in funding to counties.

For Kandiyohi County that means an increase of about $356,000.

When that's added to the 2013 County Program Aid it'll bring the total up to $1.8 million in 2014.

While an increase in funds is better than the regular decreases counties have been getting in recent years, Kandiyohi County will still be getting less aid than it did in 2010.

But the legislature also agreed to exempt counties and cities from paying state sales tax on some items, like equipment and vehicles, which will also result in significant savings, said Kandiyohi County Administrator Larry Kleindl.

A couple years ago the county invested $3 million in equipment for the county's emergency radio system known as ARMER. The county had to pay $204,000 in state sales tax for that equipment.

The county budgeted $709,200 for capital equipment this year with an estimated sales tax of nearly $49,000.

Not having to pay state sales tax will be especially beneficial on big-ticket items like snowplows that cost about $300,000 and carry a sales tax of about $20,000.

Every year the county spends $75,000-125,000 on three to five new squad cars for the sheriff's department. Not paying sales tax on those vehicles in the future will be a direct savings to tax payers, Kleindl said.

Currently taxpayers "pay taxes twice for the same item," said Kleindl, because they pay property taxes and pay sales tax for equipment that's used to operate the county.

The Legislature did deliver one disappointment by failing to take a final vote on a bill that would've allowed a number of counties, including Kandiyohi County, to consider appointing, rather than electing, the recorder and auditor/treasurer.

The bill had been passed in both chambers late last week but was pulled out of the conference committee's omnibus elections bill.

After a slight revision the bill was approved Saturday afternoon in the Senate and was scheduled for a vote on the House floor Monday.

With the last-minute jockeying to address other bills the House simply "ran out of time" to vote on the county's request, despite the efforts of Rep. Mary Sawatzky, of Willmar, said Kleindl.

Kleindl said Sawatzky assured him that the bill will be on the front-burner for the 2014 legislative session and the county won't have to "start all over" to get the bill introduced.

If it had been approved, the county would've been able to conduct formal meetings and public hearings to debate the pros and cons of making the change.

"Right now we're not even able to have that discussion," he said.

If the bill is approved next spring it would still give the county time to make a change prior to the August 2014 primary election.

He said it's important for the current office holders to know what direction the county. If the county decides to keep electing those officials, they need time to decide if they'll run for office or not.

If the county doesn't make a change in 2014 to appoint officials it will be 2018 before the county will be able to take up the issue again.

Under current state law, county elected officials must be allowed to finish out their four-year terms before those positions can become appointed posts.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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