RED WING — With a proposed budget of more than $81 million on the table, the Goodhue County Board of Commissioners met Tuesday to take a look at the budget and proposed levy for 2020.

Andrea Benck, who works in the county administration office, said that after staff input and other estimates, the county property tax levy for 2020 would be $37,336,770, a 3.82 percent increase over the 2019 levy. In dollars, the levy increase would be $1,373,400.

However, commissioners immediately began questioning the need for some expenses. 

Commissioner Barney Nesseth took exception with the capital levy, saying past levies were quite a bit smaller. 

"Where did that big jump come from?" Nesseth asked. "They say we were underfunding it before, but we were doing fine before."

Nesseth said he's for the idea of a capital spending plan that is level and grows slowly, something the county worked hard to put in place last year with a 10-year capital spending plan. However, he said, the starting point should be lower. 

"I have a question for you," Benck asked. "Are you saying these are items we don’t need or are you saying these are items we should push out?"

Pushing purchases down the road, Benck said, is what the county had done for many years, and that led to peaks and valley of spending. "We're trying to level out that tax impact," she said.

Nesseth questioned the purchase of items such as a new Bobcat for clearing snow and other work items for the public works department. He also questioned the need to buy chairs for the courthouse, replacing a set of 20-year-old chairs. He suggested capital expense details include the mileage on county vehicles or the number of hours on equipment like Bobcats or tractors.

"How does that help you determine the repair on the vehicle?" asked Commissioner Brad Anderson. "How are you going to determine that?"

Anderson said the county has a long history of underfunding its capital expenses, and replacing old, worn out items helps county employees do their jobs.

The levy impact on capital equipment purchases would be $2,197,213, Benck said. 

Goodhue County Director of Finance and Tax Payer Service Brian Anderson said that number was north of $2.85 million, but county staff worked together to prioritize needs to bring that number down more than $600,000. 

When Nesseth asked if the equipment portion of the levy could be brought down to $2 million, Arneson asked, "Do we want it based on needs or do we want it based on the number we picked out?"

Commissioner Paul Drotos pointed to painting, especially in the rotunda of the administration building, that is part of the capital expense outlay for 2020.

"We could push out the painting," he said, facetiously. "Paint chips don’t hurt anyone."

Benck added that the levy increase mainly comes from the increased cost of doing business. For example, a 3.9 percent increase in county employees' medical benefits will add about $130,000 to the budget. The county is also looking at pay increases for its employees that will be negotiated with the unions. 

Arneson noted that an assistant veterans service officer will need to be hired because the volume of aid delivered through that office. The total package for that position could be $75,00-$80,000.

Nesseth said the county should cut $200,000 from the levy because the local optional sales tax for road construction will be roughly $1 million more from the state than expected.

However, Greg Isakson, the county engineer, said the extra funds will still not catch the county up on its backlog of road and bridge maintenance. 

The disagreements between Nesseth and Commissioner Jason Majerus on one side and Brad Anderson and Drotos on the other are similar to the budget disagreements over the past two years when the levy and budget votes have been 3-2 decisions by the county board. 

Now, with only four members on the board until either an interim commissioner can be appointed or the voters elect a new commissioner — long after the preliminary maximum levy would be set — the budget hawks could cause cuts in the budget.

Without a tie-breaking vote, Brian Anderson said, a stalemate for the preliminary levy would mean the final levy for 2019 would become the 2020 preliminary levy. That levy would be $35,963,370, nearly $1.4 million lower than the levy requested.

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