During the next couple of weeks, Houston County commissioners must find some significant cuts to balance their 2013 budget.

On Sept. 11, the board voted to set the 2013 proposed tax levy at 9 percent above the 2012 level. That is the maximum amount that can be levied next year, and was used to calculate the Truth in Taxation notices.

On Dec. 11, county finance director Carol Lapham told the board that the current 2013 budget must be cut by an additional $372,433 in order to meet that proposed levy.

If the 9 percent levy raise is retained in full, it will produce an additional $889,284 in tax revenue, but that's not enough to keep pace with expenses.

Lapham asked commissioners if they wished to meet with managers of larger departments on Dec. 17, and they agreed to the suggestion.

The new numbers are more accurate because they take into account "all the (latest) salary changes, health insurance and open enrollment updates," Lapham said.

Chairman Jack Miller asked Lapham to bring ideas on how to balance the books, including "the impact of furloughs and any other ways," to the meeting.

The $372,433 amount is similar to the approximate $350,000 shortfall that the county had to make up in 2012 by dipping into its fund balance. Considerable reductions have already been made to the 2013 budget.

Back in September, Lapham said $964,415 needed to be cut from the initial 2013 budget in order to get down to the 9 percent levy increase.

Highway purchases approved

Several budgeted purchases for the county's Highway Department were approved by commissioners.

County engineer Brian Pogodzinski asked that 2012 funds be allowed to purchase a network switch, which will connect computers and phones to servers, 16 replacement telephones, four laptop computers and a large-format plotter.

The purchases, which total approximately $29,000, were approved with a single motion.

Pogodzinski said that some of the items were originally on the 2013 budget, but could be covered with 2012 monies. That will allow the department to remove them from next year's plan.

The board also approved final payments to Van Gundy Excavating for the recent CSAH 4 bridge replacement project and to Fahrner Asphalt Sealers for 2012 seal coating.

No golf carts for CSAH 26

Money Creek resident Dwight Mierau asked commissioners to decide on a proposal that would allow golf carts to use County Road 26 in the vicinity of Money Creek Haven Campground.

Specifically, he asked the board to consider Pogodzinski's recommendation on the contentious issue.

"The county can allow golf carts on county roads by passing an ordinance and going through a public hearing process," Pogodzinski said.

"Once an ordinance is passed the county would need to issue permits to individuals not to exceed three years and issue stickers to place on the golf carts.

"I went to County 26, took some pictures and looked at what's out there... speed limits, shoulders on the roadway. I also looked at what the adjacent township rules are, and if it's beneficial to allow golf carts on CSAH 26.

"I would recommend not allowing the use of golf carts; the reason being that on the west side of Trunk Highway 76 in the campground area, golf carts can already cross the road by statute.

"To go farther to the west, you get into a hill section that's (got) some narrow, winding roads, the speed limit is 55 (mph) and there is no shoulder on that roadway. To allow golf carts on that section would be a safety hazard right now."

After discussion, Commissioner Tom Bjerke made a motion to take Pogodzinski's recommendation and not allow golf carts on the county road because of safety concerns. Commissioner Steve Schuldt seconded.

Commissioner Justin Zmyewski asked to go on record, stating, "You make great points, Tom, and those are obviously concerns. But I've got to stay true to my (previous) word on this."

Zmyewski favored allowing golf carts on the roadway at an earlier meeting. The motion passed with his single "nay" vote.

Pheasants Forever president addresses commissioners

Pogodzinski was also asked to sit in on another discussion, this time with Winona/Root River Pheasants Forever President Jason Ludwigson.

"I'm concerned about the mowing of roadsides in not only Houston County, but all of the counties in the state of Minnesota," Ludwigson said, "I've seen where a lot of times that has a detrimental effect on wildlife habitat.

"At this time, with the price of commodity crops, the amount of habitat for wildlife is greatly reduced."

Ludwigson proposed that the county look at mowing ditches every third year as a way to preserve nesting habitat for upland birds and other wildlife species, noting that the practice would save money while still discouraging the growth of trees in ditches. He also advocated planting short native prairie grasses in ditches.

Ludwigson asked if mowing in ditches can be done in August rather than sooner. He also asked that vegetation be left 8 to 10 inches high rather than 2" to 3" tall.

"I'm definitely not opposed to native grasses," Pogodzinski said, although "not a lot of counties are using native plantings yet."

The seed is somewhat more expensive and controlled burns are sometimes used on the plots to encourage natives and cut back woody vegetation.

In addition, the plantings perform best where existing vegetation has been stripped away, he added. Ideally they would be used in larger (three miles or more) road projects.

Pogodzinski said that the county is "trying to minimize the use of mowing," but the first eight feet of vegetation needs to be removed for traffic safety, usually in June and sometimes later as well.

The board discussed the ideas, but took no formal action.

Other matters before the board

The board voted to reappoint Dan Goetzinger and Tim McCormick as Crooked Creek Watershed District commissioners. Their terms will now expire on 11/30/2015.

Commissioners will meet on Wednesday, Dec. 26, because of the Christmas holiday. They will not meet on Jan. 2, 2013, but will schedule an extra session on the fifth Tuesday of January instead. New commissioners do not take office until the week of Jan. 7.