"This has been a busy year," said Fillmore County Coordinator Karen Brown, addressing the Fillmore County board of commissioners and an audience of approximately 15 people during the annual county budget and tax levy hearing held last Tuesday, Dec. 11, at the courthouse in Preston. "We've worked on narrowband compliance with our emergency services. It's over a million dollars, but two thirds of that was done with grants."

Just as Brown went on to outline other items the county has handled within the 2012 fiscal year, a question arose from the audience as one person inquired as to why the narrowbanding process is necessary.

He asked, "I don't see the value in these expenditures year after year if I make a phone call and my call ends up in Rochester...why is this necessary?"

Fillmore County Sheriff Daryl Jensen explained, "It makes more space available for public safety - for us and the emergency services."

Commissioner Thomas Kaase added, "It allows for interoperability when there's an emergency. If you made a cell phone call, you were caught in the gap where it goes to the state patrol, and they divvy the information out, so even though you could see the fire department, your call was likely through the state patrol."

Jensen elaborated, "When we had the flood in Rushford, there were deputies from Ramsey County patrolling, but we couldn't communicate with them."

He added that the department is required by the government to have its equipment fully updated and in compliance with narrowbanding mandates by Jan. 1, 2013, when all law enforcement and emergency management radios, towers and equipment must be within the 800 megahertz range. "Until we get things worked out, people who call from cell phones will be stuck in that. When there was the fire in Lanesboro in 2002, the call went to Decorah. We look forward to the day when the call from a cell phone goes to the Fillmore County dispatcher," he added.

Commissioner Randy Dahl commended the cooperative effort put forward by the sheriff's department and the rest of the county board - specifically Kaase - in determining what equipment is needed. "It was going to cost $4.5 million, but thanks to Mr. Kaase being on the radio board, he helped bring the cost to taxpayers down to a couple hundred thousand."

Brown took up where the slide presentation left off, observing that the county has reduced staffing by two positions, has been sharing a community services director with Winona County, allowed for citizens' input during each meeting, held an extensive public process in determining the county's silica sand ordinance, and reviewed commissioners' districts, resulting in no change to their territories.

A performance measurement survey was conducted through the Minnesota state auditor's office, garnering 308 responses from 15,801 households. It showed that for the most part, residents find the county to be a safe, healthful place to live and raise children, though they noted that they're likely to retire elsewhere.

To attempt to make the county a pleasant place to reside, 2012 expenditures totaled $21,338,888, with $3,893,126 in the general government fund, $3,173,870 spent on public safety, $7,722,605 on the highway, airport and sanitation, $3,673,344 on social services, $1,669,509 on health, $251,953 on culture and recreation, $555,086 on conservation of natural resources, $267,000 put toward general obligation debt service, and unallocated expenses at $132,395.

Revenues for 2012 were at $21,338,888, compared to projected revenues for 2013 to be $22,959,094.

The 2012 county portion of the tax levy was $8,239,489, with the state paying $957,531. Revenue sources for 2013 include a county tax levy portion of $8,472,147 and state contributions of $799,396.

The 2012 final levy stands at $8,193,591, or $392.68 per capita, and the 2013 preliminary levy - to be approved or adjusted at this week's Dec. 18 meeting, at $8,585,694, or $411.47 per capita, for a budget increase of 7.6 percent and a preliminary increase of 4.79 percent. The county's population during the 2010 census was 20,866.

County goals and objectives for 2013 include continued review of operations for improvement, pursuing additional shared services with neighboring counties, completing renovation of the county highway office building, finalizing funding for the proposed veterans' cemetery and transitioning from Regina to Mayo Health Services for morgue services. Also, the county will be working on implementing the narrowband radio technology, planning for implementation of health exchanges and continuing exploration of technology collaborative efforts.

The final revenue and expenditure review, according to the presentation, "resulted in possible reductions of the preliminary levy by $150,489, pending board approval, and if so, the 2013 levy increase will be 2.95 percent instead of 4.79 percent."

Brown thanked those in attendance for their interest in the county's financial processes and noted that commissioners will continue to examine ways to reach goals while being as financially prudent as possible.