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AUSTIN EDITION -- Mower County might seek accounting help

Board seeks independent analysis of financial picture

By Amy Olson

aolson@postbulletin.com

Mower County board members could hire an accounting firm to get the county prepared for the 2003 budget cycle and help remedy a public relations problem with taxpayers.

Mower County Coordinator Craig Oscarson suggested to board members at Friday's half-day retreat that the county consider hiring an outside accounting firm to examine its budget and give an independent analysis of the county's financial picture. Such a firm could help the county do a better job of projecting income and needed tax revenue compared to anticipated expenditures.

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The county has been blasted by taxpayers over perceptions about the county's undesignated/unreserved funds during the past several years.

Oscarson said the documents would be helpful as board members begin looking at the 2003 budget cycle in June. The review could also help explain the fund balance to the public, he said.

The county has about $18.1 million in fund balance designations or in special revenue funds that are not available for new projects or tax relief because it is earmarked for specific purposes. That includes the library fund balance, generated through the library tax, and solid waste reserves built up through the solid waste service charge.

After "freezing" property taxes for 2002, the county will use $3.8 million of the remaining $15.2 million in undesignated unreserved funds to balance its budget. Of the remaining $11.4 million in undesignated unreserved money, about $4.3 million has been committed for several projects such as contributions to the city of Austin for its new ice arena.

Oscarson said the county could hire LarsonAllen or another accounting firm with governmental experience. He estimated it might cost about $10,000.

"I think it's money well spent," Oscarson said.

The report could give the public an independent opinion of the county's financial situation and better explain the county's reserve balances, Oscarson said.

"I think this is a good idea," said board member Dick Cummings.

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Board member Garry Ellingson agreed.

"Right now, it's totally confusing," Ellingson said.

Ellingson said he wants to see the topic placed on an upcoming board agenda so the report could be done in time to help with the 2003 budget cycle.

Board Chairman Len Miller asked if the county could save money by hiring a private accounting firm to do its yearly audit, which costs $40,000. Oscarson said an audit by a private firm would cost about $25,000 to $30,000, but the county couldn't save money because state law requires the county to use the State Auditor's office for yearly audits. Cities and school districts are allowed to hire private firms.

Board members also talked about determining an appropriate "rainy day" fund balance, which is expected to come up in future discussions.

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