On Dec. 26, Houston County commissioners certified the 2013 levy for local property taxes and approved a final budget for the year ahead.

The total operating budget is $32,067,842. Total revenues are $30,805,494. The Highway Department will carry over $1,051,000 in funding already received for ongoing road projects, which increases the revenue side of the budget to $31,856,494. That leaves a shortfall of $211,348 to be paid out of general fund reserves or spending reduced with additional cuts after the first of the year.

The 2013 taxpayer levy will be $592,855 higher than 2012 at $10,473,779 after county program aid (CPA) of $725,016 is subtracted. The 2012 levy was $9,880,925. The bottom line is that local taxes payable to the county are 6 percent above last year's levy.

Only Commissioner Justin Zmyewski cast a "nay" vote on the levy. The budget won a unanimous vote even though it received a lukewarm reception.

"As we go along through the year, I think it would be a good idea to continue looking (for 2013 spending cuts)," finance director Carol Lapham told the board.

Through the amendment process the board can make those changes at any time, she added.

"The obvious impact of our Justice Center is paramount," outgoing chairman Jack Miller said. "But the time to debate that is long gone. We have it, and we have to deal with it. I'm still of the opinion that we could have done some tougher things."

"Picking up where Jack left off, that we could have done tougher things," Zmyewski noted, "the question is, why didn't we?

"My concern is (that) last year we tapped into the general fund. There's a risk that we run doing that. If something catastrophic happens, we won't have the funds to cover it. We're taking $211,000 out of the general found to help cover our costs. I think it's [the levy] still too high, but that $211,000 I think we could have gotten on our own."

Zmyewski said that the Caledonia School District has also approved a levy hike and federal taxes might increase. With an added 6 percent from the county "we've really made it difficult," he added.

"I still think we needed to look at some personnel issues. There are a couple of changes in personnel that could have gotten us close to that $200,000."

Putting off further cuts means the issue might be forgotten for another year, Zmyewski pointed out. "We need to find out what the problem is. How do we restructure stuff so we don't have to keep doing this?"

"I think last year we should have probably raised the levy above zero," Commissioner Teresa Walter said. "We opened the Justice Center, and we knew it was going to cost us more."

"When you set a budget, you have to stay within it," Zmyewski countered. "It's the department head's job to stay within the budget. There is a management issue that I can see over and over. The mentality is, 'No big deal if we over-run, we'll just get more money later.'"

Miller pointed out, "I just think that what the private sector has to deal with, and how they have to live with things, (those ideas) just get brushed aside here. It's not the way things should operate."

Lapham stated, "While we can't think of ourselves like a private business, we should actually consider how we can be more fiscally responsible. It's not our money."

"They have to make a profit," Miller said of the private sector. "While we do not have to make a profit, we shouldn't be taxing people for things that we should be controlling, either."

Outgoing Commissioner Tom Bjerke noted that state cuts to CPA and the elimination of the Homestead Credit had exasperated the county's dilemma of spiraling costs and less state funding.

"Going forward, hopefully you can address some of these issues," he said. "If there's somebody retiring, maybe you can stay neutral instead of hiring. I think there are some spots on that, that may help this next year.

"Budgets are tough, and we beat everybody up. I don't know where we can cut $200,000 out of anybody's budget. They came in and said 'We need this.'

"There are services that are going to be cut. If you guys think that personnel are the issue, then go for it. But right now at the eleventh hour is not the time to do it."

Zmyewski said that personnel discussions were held earlier, but the issue was "kicked down the road."

"There's a bigger issue here," he added later. "I think there needs to be a Houston County redesign."

Miller agreed. "There are services that we don't have to provide. There are services that the private sector can provide. Counties adjacent to us have dropped some of those services."

Jail study tabled for now

A proposal from BKV Group, Minneapolis, to do a re-use study on the historic Houston County Jail building was tabled. The proposed fee is $12,500 plus $800 to cover reimbursable expenses such as printing, mileage and shipping.

Commissioners asked that County EDA director Jordan Wilms weigh in on possible sources of funding to help pay for the study before accepting the offer.