Houston County commissioners approved the 2014 tax levy on Tuesday, Dec. 17. At $11,729,116, the levy is 3.52 percent higher than last year. Finance director Carol Lapham reported that the hike is the maximum allowed by law. Reduced by $873,566 after CPA (County Program Aid) is subtracted, the net levy will be $10,855,550.

Lapham said that even with the maximum increase, the county's budget is still estimated as $35,547 higher than revenues. If actual costs follow the forecast, the shortfall will need to come out of fund balance.

The vote to increase the total placed on property taxes by 3.52 percent was not unanimous, as board chair Justin Zmyewski cast a "no" vote.

"I can see, looking at projections, that we can't continue this rate of increase," he said. "There's got to be some sort of restructuring or something that's got to be looked at in the future. We can't keep turning a blind eye to it... We're at 120 percent (higher) than we were in 2005.

"We've gone over these budgets in detail," Commissioner Teresa Walter replied. "Some of it we don't have any control over... I think all of us want to get down to a 0 percent (increase) if we can.

Walter said that the cost of the Justice Center coupled with flooding has driven budgets higher. One example of increased costs are materials for the county's highway department (up 72 percent in the last 10 years), she noted.

"I think we've done due diligence," Commissioner Judy Storlie stated.

Zmyewski did not agree. Following the meeting, he cited neighboring Fillmore County, where the tax levy from 2008 to 2014 increased by approximately 11 percent. Houston County's rate of increase is 4.5 times higher, he said.

The total 2014 budget for Houston County is $29,591,610.

In other news, the board voted to accept the resignation of Public Health nurse Jan Lochner and assistant county attorney Araysa Ashmore. Jena Benson was hired as a drop site supervisor, 67-day employee position.

Commissioners approved a search for a full-time replacement for Ashmore. On a recommendation from interim Public Health director Mary Thompson, a search for a replacement for Lochner was postponed until a permanent public health director is hired.

Thompson also asked that the "sliding fee" for home health aide visits be eliminated, since the department often loses money providing those services at less than the full rate of $55.00 per hour. Applicants who enroll in the state health plan will be able to pay the full fee, she added. The board approved the request.

Commissioners approved $50.00 per diems for members of the Board of Adjustment and Planning Commission who attend Ordinance Study Committee meetings. The next such session is Dec. 23 at 7 p.m.

Commissioner Steve Schultz asked that the study commission look into the recent enactment of term limits for Planning Commission (PC) members, to see if the turnover of experienced personnel could somehow be slowed. One suggestion would be to allow outgoing PC members to take openings on the Board of Adjustment, which will also experience turnover due to term limits. There was no vote on the matter, but commissioners agreed by consensus to forward the topic to the study group.

The board also approved a contract for Bolton & Menk of Burnsville, Minnesota to provide a traffic study on county roadways within the City of La Crescent, with special attention on the impact of proposed bike/pedestrian lanes. The cost will be $14,960.

A final plat for a one-lot subdivision for Nick Thesing of Money Creek Township was approved, as was a disaster credit for James and Gwen Puent. The Puent family lost their home La Crescent one year ago to a fire.