Business as usual is the key to the county budgets and levies across Southeast Minnesota, even though COVID-relief funding through the federal American Rescue Plan has offered a new financial option for some budgets.
Jim Elmquist, county administrator in Dodge County, said while the county has looked into whether or not to reclaim lost revenue and use some ARP funding to keep its levy lower, the county board, instead, is holding $1.5 million aside but not including it in the county's budget for the moment.
"We've not incorporated it into the 2022 budget as of yet," he said, adding that the county will receive $4 million in ARP funding over the next two years.
Instead of using those funds for a one-time reduction in the levy, the county board is looking at several infrastructure projects where the one-time funds can be used on one-time projects.
A prudent approach on how to spend ARP money is common among the counties across Southeast Minnesota. Below is a look at the 2022 preliminary levies and budgets for counties around the region, and what factors have led to those numbers.
2022 preliminary levy: 15,912,182, 4.0% change.
2022 preliminary budget: 39,678,798
Comments: "I do anticipate this is a working number," Elmquist said. "I do believe it will be further reduced."
A big part of the change, he said, between 2021 and 2022 comes from several joint powers agreements the county has with other counties. Dodge County's share of any increases among those JPA departments is larger than other counties within those agreements.
2022 preliminary levy: $11,927,762, a 3.49% increase.
2022 preliminary budget: $12,261,251
Comments: Most of the county's increases come from increased labor costs and health insurance costs. As for ARP funding, the county will look at several options at its next meeting, said Fillmore County Commissioner Randy Dahl. However, the county will not be using its ARP funding to lower its levy, but will be looking at funding some positions to help county administration keep up with its workload.
"We’ve talked about a lot of things, but we haven’t really set the priorities for how that money will be spent," Dahl said.
2022 preliminary levy: $40,785,194, a 6.84% increase.
2022 preliminary budget: $77,964,712
Comments: Like other counties, County Administrator Scott Arneson said most of the changes between 2021 and 2022 are typical items such as the cost of health insurance, county payroll and costs of doing business such as fuel for county vehicles. However, the county board is aiming to bring the levy down before finalizing it in December.
"As we get further in the year, things get more solid," Arneson said. "You move from an estimate to a solid."
Arneson said the county may add a legal secretary to help with the court backlog created by COVID-19, and that would be paid with ARP funding, but the county is taking its time to figure out how to spend the bulk of its COVID relief funding.
2022 preliminary levy: $23,576,627, a 3.9% increase.
2022 preliminary budget: $57,491,540.
Comments: "Our health insurance remained relatively even," said County Commissioner Jeff Baldus.
As for what's driving increases to the budget and levy, Baldus cited the county's agreement with the city of Austin for the Law Enforcement Center, though that item should come down and lower the levy a bit, he said. Other budget increases include the purchase of vehicles, the increased price of fuel, and other minor expenses.
"It’s the little things that add up because nobody pays attention to the little things," Baldus said.
As for the county's $7.9 million in ARP funding, Baldus said the county is taking its time to find the right programs or projects on which to spend the money. The county's hospitality industry, for example, was harmed by COVID-19, so the county board is looking at ways to give that industry some relief. Other industries being looked at include daycare, housing and general business grants.
"This money is not intended to buy down the levy," he said.
2022 preliminary levy: $15,954,131, 3.0% increase
2022 preliminary budget: $35,267,875
Comments: Nearly 90% of the change from year to year, said Wabasha County Administrator Michael Plante, comes from the county's highway department.
"There's $3.6 million in new funding, and $3.2 million comes from the highway department," Plante said. "The rest is salaries and benefits."
Still, some projects are being put off until 2023, he said. And the county board is aiming to bring in the levy increase to less than 3.0% rate.
As for the ARP money, the county has already set aside $1 million for broadband expansion. The rest, Plante said, will sit while the county commissioners consider the best projects to benefit Wabasha County long term.
"We’re doing the wait-and-see approach," he said. "We'll take the next six months to a year for additional investments."
2022 preliminary levy: $20,885,387, a 3.0% increase.
2022 preliminary budget: $79,447,905
Comments: Payroll and public assistance programs such as foster care have played a role in the 3% levy increase in Winona Count, said County Administrator Ken Fritz. There's also a small payment on the bond for the new jail.
Winona County did take some ARP funding for revenue recapture; about $401,000, Fritz said, but most of $9.8 million is waiting while the county finds the right projects.
"We just approved $2.6 million for broadband expansion," he said. "We did that with CARES Act money and state funds in the past. We did a survey of the community through Engage Winona and are looking at the possibilities and will move forward."