In a brief county board meeting at the Fillmore County Courthouse on Sept. 10, county commissioners found plenty to agree and disagree upon regarding the 2014 preliminary levy.

Between the Sept. 3 meeting of the board and the meeting held on Tuesday, an entry error had been discovered in the budget. The correction resulted in a levy increase of $177,000, or 2.1 percent. The state levy limit for the county is at zero percent and all commissioners have expressed their desire to not raise the levy. The board had discussed the option of using fund balance dollars to zero out the levy during that meeting and was still faced with that option entering the Sept. 10 meeting.

County coordinator Karen Brown began by updating the board on the 2014 preliminary budget. The proposed budget reflects an 11.7 percent increase to $25,543,159. Major portions of the budget are for planned road and bridge projects, deferred equipment purchases, new staff in Social Services, salary increases and the Greenleafton septic system.

The county portion of the tax levy would be $8,498,658 at a 2.1 percent increase from the 2013 levy. In reducing that to zero percent, the board had two options. The board could certify the levy at 2.1 percent and reduce their need to draw upon fund balance through cuts, increased revenue, or possible state exemptions before the final budget and levy are approved in December. Alternatively, the board could certify the levy at zero percent and swap out their use of fund balances whenever cuts, revenue or exemptions would be approved prior to final budget/levy approval.

Commissioner Chair Randy Dahl voiced his concern with using reserves immediately. "It's putting us in cash flow problems," he stated. "I want to see the cuts in the budget."

He suggested setting the preliminary levy at 1.5 percent and trying to move it down to zero from there.

Commissioner Tom Kaase asked what the state recommended for the ratio of unrestricted fund balance to current year expenditures.

Commissioner Marc Prestby said between 30 and 50 percent.

Commissioner Duane Bakke pointed out that the county wouldn't know where it stood with current unrestricted fund balance totals until the 2013 audit got back. He noted the county had used $320,000 for 2013.

From there, the commissioners began debating whether to certify the levy at 2.1 or zero percent. Dahl claimed the state had started a game of smoke and mirrors and wanted to make a political statement in keeping the levy at zero percent.

Kaase disagreed with Dahl's statement and said zero percent was what was best for the budget.

"What is your reason for setting it at zero if you don't have the cuts in the budget?" Dahl asked Kaase.

Prestby answered by saying the county would have to find more revenue or use fund balances. "Show me the additional revenue then," expressed Dahl, reiterating his desire to see the cuts before approving the levy increase at zero percent.

Bakke reminded the board that they had until the final approval in December to actually zero out the levy increase. "We might come up with more grants, cuts. The Department of Revenue might change something," he suggested. "If we have in our minds that that we want it at zero, we have three months to cut it. Our plan is to get it to zero and we can get it there."

Dahl said it was a good goal to have it at zero, but said he didn't think it was realistic at the meeting.

He also mentioned that he hadn't seen any real savings for citizens through state changes in the past year. He pointed to increases in health care and labor costs, which are reflected in the budget. "The only thing left to cut is capital expenditures," he said.

Bakke pointed out that bills had been passed which increased state aid to counties and cut sales taxes. "Some people will argue that the levy should be lower than last year," he stated.

The board began to settle on certifying the levy at a 2.1 percent increase with the intent of directing department heads to get the $248,000 total levy increase down to zero by the final approval.

"It's semantics," stated Bakke.

Following the approval of the 2014 preliminary budget, a motion was seconded to certify the levy at 2.1 percent. Bakke asked if the 2.1 percent increase would be reflected in the estimated tax statements sent out to county residents.

Brown said they would though the actual assessment would be different.

Bakke said he had forgotten about that and said the number in the statement wouldn't be accurate even if the intent was to still cut the levy increase to zero. The board agreed with his new reasoning and struck down the motion to certify at 2.1 percent. A new motion was made and passed to certify the levy increase at zero percent.

The county will now need to make cuts or find revenue to reduce the $248,000 to zero or be forced to use fund balances to cover the excess budget items to whatever extent is needed.

Highway department

County highway engineer Ronald Gregg brought three items to the commissioners for approval. A detour agreement with MnDOT was approved, which would send traffic going from Preston to Lanesboro on County Roads 17 and 8. Two bridges along County Road 16 will be replaced during next summer.

A fund transfer of $439,376 from Municipal State Aid to the Regular State Aid Construction account was approved. The money came from municipal accounts that have had over two years of apportionment. The money can now be spent on projects located outside of municipalities under populations of 5,000.

Gregg also received approval to correct the amount of grant monies being received from the state for the Chatfield Township bridge project. The increase went from $46,860 to $60,159.

Bakke told Gregg about a concern received at the Sept. 3 meeting that regarded the absence of guardrail along County Road 25 heading by the Peterson fish hatchery. Gregg said there were multiple factors that played into the road not having guardrail and stated he would look into the issue.

Other news

The county commissioners handled several smaller issues at their meeting on Tuesday. They included the following.

• An amended purchase agreement with the State of Minnesota for the veterans' cemetery land was approved by the commissioners. Commissioner Chuck Amunrud said the process in getting the veterans' cemetery started has gone well except for hang-ups through the Department of Real Estate.

• The board approved a service agreement with Zumbro Valley Mental Health for its 2013-2014 Southeast Minnesota Chemical Dependency Pilot Project. The service provides navigator case management services.

• Terry Schultz from building maintenance received approval to have a roof built over two air conditioners at the county highway office building. He also received the go ahead to address carpeting repair issues in the courthouse.

• An increase in work release pay was approved upon Sheriff Daryl Jensen's recommendation. Pay will now be $25 per day. Those people on work release will also be required to wear a GPS tracking device, which costs the county $8 per day.

• The board also approved a joint powers agreement with the State of Minnesota through the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for the Minnesota Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. One hundred agencies in Minnesota are a part of the task force and Jensen said the county would receive reimbursement for work on cases outside of the county.