WILLMAR — Kandiyohi County has adopted a $34.4 million net property tax levy for 2020, a slight increase over this year's levy.

The action was taken Tuesday by the County Board of Commissioners and followed an in-depth budget review by the board last month. Minnesota counties have until Sept. 30 to certify their preliminary tax levy for next year. Final budgets must be approved by the end of the year.

Overall spending on county programs and services is projected to be lower in 2020 — $75.7 million, compared to $78.1 million this year. Several factors contributed to the decrease, such as income from grants and employee retirements in several departments that offset wage increases. Lower projected spending is not necessarily reflected in the tax levy, however, which is partly influenced by state aid and costs for mandated services that are shifted down to the local level.

The budget process started in May and involved a close look at revenue and spending in every single category, said Larry Kleindl, county administrator.

"We look at where we can make cuts," he said. "We look at where we can pull in additional revenues."

The property tax levy, which comes directly from county taxpayers and accounts for roughly half of the revenue that supports the annual budget, represents a 1.79 percent net increase from this year. The levy includes $2.2 million in county program aid from the state applied to the gross levy for direct relief for Kandiyohi County taxpayers.

Although program aid to counties has yet to catch up to the levels allocated 15 years ago, it has been rising again after cutbacks several years ago, and the aid is "incredibly valuable" in helping counties reduce the local tax burden, said County Commissioner Roger Imdieke.

Kleindl said the county has maintained a philosophy of keeping tax levy increases consistent from one year to the next and avoiding peaks and valleys. Attention to the budget is ongoing throughout the year, with an eye toward future needs, he said. "We plan expenditures. It keeps the budget as level as possible. It also allows us to be better prepared for capital equipment needs."

One area of concern: the county's recycling program. Markets for recyclables are declining across the U.S., a trend that is reflected in the prices Kandiyohi County is able to get for the material it sells, Kleindl said.

Cardboard, for example, went for $81 a ton less than a year ago, and now it's down to $41 a ton, he said. "That has an impact on our revenue. We monitor that and we're looking at options."

With a master plan for the county park system due to be completed within the next few months, Kandiyohi County also will start identifying park improvements that are a priority, how to pay for them and whether park fees should be raised to help offset the costs.

"We're going to be looking at everything," Kleindl said.

The budget process went smoothly this year, with the commissioners reaching a consensus at their work session last month that the numbers were where they wanted them to be.

"Coming in at this percentage is very satisfactory," said Corky Berg.