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YM County asks legislators to end levy cap

GRANITE FALLS — County commissioners in Yellow Medicine County told local legislators on Tuesday that the state’s imposition of levy limits has hurt the county’s budget, as has the way the state distributes funding for probation programs.

A state-imposed levy cap meant the county could increase its levy for the coming year by just over 3 percent. It forced the county to adopt a budget with nearly $600,000 in deficit spending, the commissioners told Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, and Rep. Chris Swedzinkski, R-Ghent.

Without the cap, the county would likely have adopted a higher levy to fund increased costs over which it has little control, the commissioners said. They cited increases in health insurance costs of 30 percent last year and 17 percent in the coming year as an example of the budget challenges they face.

Costs associated with purchasing and remodeling a building for county offices also was a factor in the deficit spending, since the county tapped reserve funds for building work.

The Legislature imposed a levy cap for this year. A variety of factors determined the levy cap placed on each county. In the case of Yellow Medicine County, a relatively low debt load and healthy fund balance restricted the levy increase to just over 3 percent, according to information presented to the legislators.

Commissioner Ron Antony said counties should be free to make their own decisions on what to levy, noting that the commissioners must answer to voters. “You answer to your constituents, and so do we,” said Antony.

Dahms said levy limits had frustrated him while he served as a commissioner in Redwood County. He said he does not support levy limits now either. He agreed with the commissioners that locally elected office holders are accountable to voters.

Members of the Yellow Medicine County Board of Commissioners are also upset with how the state Department of Corrections distributes funds for probation programs. The commissioners charged that counties which use a community based-model for offering probation services receive a smaller share of the funds than do those relying on state-operated probation systems.

Yellow Medicine County has seen its costs rise “astronomically” as a result, they said.

Yellow Medicine County has seen its local taxpayer cost for offering probation services rise from $83,410 in 2006 to $211,311 in 2014, according to County Administrator Peggy Heglund. In information provided the legislators, the commissioners said the current system for distributing state funds for probation services “is confusing, not transparent and has contributed to years of underfunding for community probation services.”

Yellow Medicine is part of a community-based probation system known as Six West Community Corrections. Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties comprise the system.

The commissioners also expressed concerns about the new workers compensation law that now includes mental health care. The extension of coverage to post-traumatic stress disorder arising out of employment would disproportionately affect the costs to counties, they say. Public employees have some of the riskiest and most stressful jobs in the state, they said.

The commissioners also voiced their support for revenue increases to meet state transportation needs. Sen. Dahms said the allocation of $300 million for corridor projects will benefit the area. Projects to be funded include adding two passing lanes on Minnesota Highway 23 between Marshall and Willmar.

Dahms said he also was concerned about transportation funding needs. “Unfortunately (transportation) always ends up on the bottom of the pile,” he said.

The Tuesday meeting also served as the organizational meeting for the coming year. By unanimous votes, the commissioners elected Louis Sherlin, of Canby, as chairman and Greg Renneke, of Wood Lake, as vice chairman for the coming year.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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