County likely to hike levy 3%

FAIRMONT – A proposed 3.15 percent property tax levy increase and the 2014 budget was the focus of the Martin County Commission Truth-in-Taxation hearing Thursday.

Board chairman Elliot Belgard opened the hearing by explaining to the handful of residents in attendance, some carrying their property tax statements, that the fall hearing is about the budget, while the spring hearing is about property valuation.

County Auditor James Forshee then dissected the county’s proposed budget of $23.1 million.

“The difference between the expenditures and revenues is higher than last year,” he said. “If we’re going to be staying within the levy limits, we have to use reserves.”

Revenues for 2014 are estimated at $11 million, with the proposed levy netting an additional $11.8 million. The county’s reserve fund will have to be tapped for about $355,400 to balance the budget.

The levy increase is caused by various reasons, including loss of revenue from state grants and aid; increase in requests from Human Services; more money being spent maintaining roads and bridges; and increased costs for boarding prisoners out of county.

In addition to the levy, the two biggest income-producing items in the budget are general government at $3.5 million, and the road and bridge fund at $6.2 million.

Expenditures include $8.8 million (38 percent of the total) for roads and bridges; $4.1 million (18 percent) for public safety; and $6.5 million (28 percent) for general government. General government includes the general fund, parks, boat and water fund, economic development, library, law library, transit and emergency 911.

Forshee pointed out that the capital projects fund will remain stagnant in 2014 in an effort to cut expenses.

“We normally put money away for (building) improvements,” he said. “This year, we’re not putting any money away.”

The 2013 budget depleted the reserve fund by $110,000, and that amount has more than tripled in the proposed 2014 budget.

“The last two years, the county has spent quite a lot of reserves to keep the levy down,” Forshee said. “We’re anticipating the next couple of years to put some money back in the reserves.”

Overall, Forshee called the budget “bare bones.”

“It was much higher than this when we started,” Commissioner Dan Schmidtke noted.

“We’d like to see it smaller,” Belgard said. “We’d like to see the levy lower, but I’m betting [at our next meeting] on the 17th, we’ll see 3.15 (percent).”