Houston County Board questioned on budget, taxes
Tuesday, January 22, 2013 5:03 AM
"I've been monitoring the county board for over a year," Caledonia resident Chuck Schulte told commissioners on Jan. 15, "looking into finances, expenditures and what-not."
"I've walked around the county, and I've talked to people in different age groups. Young families with children, middle-aged working people, elderly people...
"What prompted me on this voyage is the fact that I think we pay too many taxes in Houston County."
Schulte presented the board with over 150 pages of documentation covering budgets in Houston, Fillmore and Allamakee counties.
"Don't let it scare you," he said, "It's been condensed down into one page."
That page drew several conclusions. It stated that Houston County with less area to provide services to than either of the other jurisdictions and fewer residents than Fillmore County, has a far larger total budget for 2013 - $32,067,842 for Houston versus $20,665,290 for Allamakee and $22,959,094 for Fillmore.
Schulte said that the 2010 census placed Houston County at 19,027, Allamakee at 14,330 and Fillmore at 20,886.
"Houston County's budget is 40 percent larger than Fillmore's. Fillmore has more population and 56 percent more square miles," he stated.
"That's what we're spending," Schulte said. "The money is coming from the people of this county as well as from the state."
With a declining population, Houston County residents cannot afford to pay ever-higher levies, Schulte concluded.
"Who are you going to pass the taxes on to when people leave?" he asked commissioners.
Citing a 2013 levy that doesn't cover spending, Schulte also asked, "What are you going to do next year?"
"If I'm going to pay 40 percent more in property tax in Houston County than I would in Fillmore, where in the world would I go to start a business? Where would I buy a house? The board has to understand what they're doing. Sitting in the spectator section, I don't see it.
"We have two new board members who didn't have any problem voting for a $34,000 expenditure that we did not need (last week).
"I have two questions I want answered. 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."
Schulte repeatedly referred to an elderly lady who he called "Martha" stating that the character is based on an actual person. The lady is in her 80s, in poor health and unable to make ends meet, he said.
"I want you to think about Martha, who's sitting in her home wondering how she is going to pay her bills. She's lived in that house her entire life. She's a proud lady. She never asked anybody for anything, and she's worrying about how she can pay her heat and taxes. Does Martha ever enter your thinking?"
"I'm sorry but I am really upset about this," he pointed out.
Schulte said that he is on the county board agenda for Jan. 22 to discuss the county's Highway Department Shop/Headquarters. On Jan. 29, he has requested to return to take up the topic of Houston County's overall budget.
No commissioners asked Schulte about the issues he raised, but Commissioner Steve Schuldt stated that he would study the documents prior to the Jan. 29 meeting. Board Chair Justin Zmyewski thanked Schulte for his input.
Agenda form announced
The board voted to approve an "Agenda Request" form for regular county board meetings. The document would need to be submitted by the Monday before (eight days prior to) the meeting, which an individual or group wants to address the board at.
Auditor Char Meiners said that a similar form is used by the City of La Crescent. The idea behind the application is to inform county commissioners and staff on the issues to be discussed and provide added documentation on matters that the board will hear.
Goal setting ideas discussed
Commissioners discussed goal setting for 2013. Zmyewski brought some ideas, which included "Commissioners will have an intimate knowledge of the business at hand and not just an opinion," and "The board will not exceed the 2013 budget and will replace at least $150,000 of the $500,000 that was borrowed from the general fund over the last two fiscal years."
Commissioner Judy Storlie took issue with one commissioner setting the agenda, and offered the opinion that all commissioners should work together to adopt a set of goals.
Zmyewski demurred, adding that his suggestions were just offered as "a starting point."
Commissioners decided by consensus to take Personnel Director Tess Kruger up on an offer to bring a systematic, ongoing system to the process of goal setting for the county.
Kruger said that she already has training and materials to bring before the board, and she could begin a series of talks on the matter within a few weeks.