County eyes 16% hike in levy

FAIRMONT – After keeping the county property tax levy increase low for several years, Martin County commissioners came to a grim realization Tuesday.

Martin County Auditor Jim Forshee told them a first look at the proposed 2015 budget shows a 26 percent levy hike.

“The big things [are] the reserves, and the deficit at Human Services,” Forshee explained. “The last few years, we’ve been spending reserves to keep the levy costs down.”

After reviewing individual department requests and making a list of reductions, Forshee said the budget can be decreased by $1.1 million, but still requires a levy increase of about 16 percent.

“We could go through line by line and decrease it two or three percent more,” Forshee said. “But without spending money out of reserves, I don’t see how we can accomplish anything more.”

This year, the county plans to spend $400,000 from reserves. In 2013, $500,000 was used.

“Currently we have about $7 million in reserves, so we’re in good shape,” Forshee said. “We’re healthy and where the state wants to see us.”

However, commissioners agreed they cannot continue to lean on the reserves and remain in good financial shape.

“We can’t just wait until next year and hope things will be better,” said Commissioner Dan Schmidtke. “We need to get that revenue back up and quit spending it all.”

But after years of having levy increases of less than 4 percent, a double-digit jump is difficult for county leaders to swallow.

“Is anyone here comfortable with a 15 percent levy?” asked Commissioner Elliot Belgard, as he mentioned the possibility of having to borrow money.

“I know we don’t want to,” he said. “But we’re going to have to be creative somehow.”

“I’d hate to keep spending out of reserves,” Forshee said. “We’re digging a bigger hole.”

Forshee also explained that in the past year and a half, Human Services has had a few months in which it has gone over its monthly allotment of funds.

“It’s happened about three times,” Forshee said.

The reason is due to out-of-home placement for youths.

“With the issues faced with some of these youth, such as mental health, we’re seeing less people willing to go into foster care, and we no longer have Elmore Academy or anyplace close for them,” Forshee said. “The requirements for some of them means they’re housed in places that cost $300 to $400 a day.”

Despite the costs not being within Human Services’ control, the overspending was frowned upon by commissioners.

“I know there isn’t much that isn’t mandated over there, but whatever isn’t should be gone,” Schmidtke said. “We gotta get their attention.”

Another budget workshop will be held following the next commission meeting on Aug. 19.

A preliminary levy needs to be given to the state by Sept. 15, with a final levy approved in December. A county can decrease its levy after entering a preliminary percentage, but it cannot increase.