On Jan. 29, Houston County commissioners invited their department heads to explain where all the money goes, as part of a response to questions from Caledonia resident Chuck Schulte.

On Jan. 15, Schulte quizzed the board on the size of its budget, noting that neighboring counties seem to run on much less cash.

"I have two questions I want answered," Schulte said at the earlier meeting, "One, I want to know why? Two, I want to know what we're going to do about it? It isn't just me you're answering to. You're answering to the people that elected you."

Representatives from Houston County's Highway Department, Sheriff's Department, Veterans Services, Zoning/Environmental Services, Human Services, Public Health, Information Technology and attorney's, recorder's, treasurer's and auditor's offices spoke.

Some made brief comments and answered just a single question, while others made much more detailed presentations.

Schulte stated, "I'm not trying to put the board on the spot. I just want to know why we're spending more money than neighboring counties, which should have pretty similar regulations and rules."

Fillmore County was the primary comparison.

"The thing that I can't get over is when you get into the tax levy, we're about two and a half million dollars more (per year)," Schulte said.

"Any time you look at an organization, you really should look at the top. When you look at the budget for the Houston County Board of Commissioners, it is $122,000 larger than Fillmore County.

"I'll be honest with you; I don't have a very good feeling for the management of Houston County. As I go around the county and talk to people, I'm not alone on that."

"We're always working on the budget, every week," acting chairman Teresa Walter replied (two commissioners were absent).

"We have had lots of state and federal cuts and decreased funding. There are a lot of mandates that we are required to do, or we're penalized for not doing them.

"We're working on redesigning our departments. We're starting with Human Services; we're looking at a lot of other areas where we can work together, cross-train, cut budgets, being more efficient. It's a work in progress.

"Comparing Houston County, it's not the same as Fillmore County. It's not really the same 'apples to apples' at all. Houston County levies 30 percent of our budget, while Fillmore levies for 36 percent."

Walter stated that even though Houston County used $246,000 of its fund balance last year, Fillmore County tapped into its savings even more, using $320,000.

County engineer Brian Pogodzinski gave the most detailed accounting, comparing Houston County's Highway Department to Fillmore County's.

His report exemplified the difficulties in making "apples to apples" line item comparisons between neighboring counties.

"Each county has unique circumstances with differences in topography, geology, traffic volume, existing pavement and bridge conditions, public demands, etc." Pogodzinski reported.

"Services provided at the county level in one county may be provided by cities, townships or the private sector in another county."

By aggressively pursuing state funding to help replace deficient bridges, MnDOT's listing of such problem structures within Houston County has been reduced from 49 in 2010 to 38 now, Pogodzinski said.

Fillmore County currently has 91 deficient bridges, he pointed out.

Another line that swells Houston County's budget for 2013 is $950,000 for the county airport. Most of those funds will come from federal and state coffers for runway repaving. By contrast, Fillmore County budgeted a total of $137,704 for its airport.

Pogodzinski said the local match for Houston County's project will total $25,741, and the county is pursuing $17,000 in additional funds to offset that cost.

State flood bonding monies are also still on the books for uncompleted projects, he added.

Pogodzinski said that even though Houston County is currently set to levy for $2.2 million in road and bridge projects, Fillmore County is close behind at $1.8 million.

When the totals for projects are added up, however, Houston County is projecting $10 million worth of work being completed, while Fillmore will only get $4.5 million out of their investment.

"MnDOT bridge office lead inspectors and engineering personnel have noticed what Houston County has been doing over the past several years and is recommending that other counties follow our example," Pogodzinski stated.

Houston County Veterans Services Officer Rob Gross stated that even though his office appears to have a larger budget than Fillmore's, it isn't so.

"Houston County has administrative costs calculated into our budget," he said. "In Fillmore County, it's included under Human Services. Our budgets are virtually identical."

Paybacks in the form of benefits to veterans are higher in Houston County ($8.2 million) than in Fillmore ($5.8 million), Gross added.

Houston County Sheriff Doug Ely said, "From looking at the numbers that I was given today, public safety for Houston County is $178,000 less than Fillmore County. Furthermore, why do we care about Fillmore County?

"I don't compare apples to apples to Fillmore County on anything. We have a brand-new jail but my budget for the jail is almost $75,000 less. My sheriff's office is more, because Fillmore County contracts. They make money on the sheriff's office, we don't. The sheriffs' office is not a money-making project, nor should it be."

Houston County Attorney Jamie Hammell stated that Fillmore County has "much less criminal cases" to prosecute. Child protection cases are also higher in Houston County, she added.

Human Services director Linda Bahr agreed, stating that child protection services in Houston County are higher due to demographics.

Public Health director Deb Rock cited "similar public health programs" for both counties. She added that the jurisdictions share a joint board of health.

Finance director Carol Lapham said that she originally thought salaries may be partly to blame for the differences in total budget, but further study proved otherwise.

"I don't think there's anyone in the county not committed to making sure we provide the taxpayers with the most that they can get for their tax dollars," she noted.

"I'm so proud of the people who work in our county," Commissioner Judy Storlie said.

"We seem to be running very efficiently," Commissioner Dana Kjome added. "I come from Spring Grove, and I want to hold the line on taxes."

"I think this was a valuable exercise," Schulte said. "I think you guys are doing a great job in your departments, but I'm still worried about taxes."

"I'm not trying to pick on individuals. I have no sacred cows," Schulte summed up.

After the meeting, Schulte noted that he intends to keep digging into the issues he brought forward on Jan. 15.

Although his first question on "why" the county's budget is where it is has been largely answered by staff, the question of "What are we going to do about it?" has not.

Finding answers to that question will have to originate from the county board, he said.