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Beltrami County Board hears 2010 budget, fires lobbyist

Citing a "weak" record for Beltrami County in Washington, D.C., county commissioners fired their lobbyist.

Only one citizen -- former Beltrami County Commissioner Rodney Benson -- commented during a public hearing Tuesday night on the county's proposed $58.1 million 2010 budget and $16.97 million property tax levy.

The surprise, however, came after the public hearing when commissioners voted 4-0, with Commissioner Jim Heltzer absent, to fire David Turch & Associates, the county's Capitol Hill lobbyist.

"As far as our lobbying at the federal level, our budget included that when it was prepared," County Administrator Tony Murphy told commissioners. "But our perceived outcomes from these efforts have been very weak."

He suggested exercising a 30-day termination notice clause in the county's contract with Turch, a motion then made by Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks and seconded by Commissioner Joe Vene.

Just after taking office nearly a year ago, County Board Chairman Jim Lucachick had questioned the hiring of a Washington, D.C., lobbyist, saying the commissioners can pick up a phone and talk to Minnesota's members of Congress.

"We will keep that face of Beltrami County wherever it needs to be," Vene said. "We will show them our lovely countenance."

Said Lucachick: "We can spend the $36,000 in Beltrami County and put it to something really needed."

Commissioners were split last year in retaining Turch, but set out goals to be accomplished. Key was securing federal economic stimulus funding for the county's $3.5 million jail efficiency project -- funding that never came.

Turch has lobbied for the county for three years, primarily for federal highway funds and to include the Red Lake Band of Chippewa in federal human services program funding, rather than the county.

The firm did help Beltrami County gain a $32,000 a year juvenile justice grant, secured several hundred thousand dollars for Bemidji Regional Airport improvements, and successfully inserted policy on the county's behalf to increase the federal reimbursement rate for Title IV-E child protection cases involving tribal children.

But 2009 has been bleak for the county in Washington.

"We have not had that good a return on our investment that we hoped for," Commissioner Jack Frost said Tuesday. ?But they have done well for the airport."

Turch & Associates has a separate contract with the Bemidji Regional Airport Authority, to which Frost and Vene are commissioners to that board. The airport is about to begin a $8 million airport expansion project, much of it federally funded.

At one time, the city of Bemidji expressed interest in joining in Beltrami County's contract with Turch.

About 25 people attended the county budget public hearing, but two-thirds of them left when Lucachick said the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss property valuations or assessments.

County Assessor Duane Ebbighausen stationed himself outside the County Board room to visit with those who had valuation questions.

Former Commissioner Benson had no comment on the budget, but bemoaned that agricultural land values were up significantly.

Murphy said state changes in how the market value credit is handled is the root cause, and that as ag values climb values in other classifications declined.

The proposed property tax levy is 1.93 percent less than this year's levy, recognizing the loss of about $2 million in state aid. That's before Wednesday's announcement that another $1.2 billion state budget hole must be filled, with Gov. Tim Pawlenty eyeing state aid payments later this month to cities and counties.

"We're holding the line and even going backwards 1.9 percent," said Lucachick.

"We started in March with a list of 100 items to cut," said Fairbanks. "This is really a three-year budget -- 2009, 2010 and 2011. It will get tighter and tighter, but we're getting prepared for it."

The tax rate for the seventh year in a row will decline, next year by 6 percent, Murphy told commissioners from information he got from County Auditor/Treasurer Kay Mack.

Commissioners started with wanting no property tax increases, "so "by virtue of that, we pledged not to backfill state legislative cuts," Vene said. "We have an actual decrease."

Frost called it "unique" that the county is able to run its government with a $58.1 million budget with only $16.97 million in local property taxes. "It's all pass-through funding."

As for the budget, "we cut everyway possible," Frost said. "We are down 30 FTEs (full-time equivalent) in unfilled positions. We can't cut into our muscle without affecting essential services."

Commissioners put off discussion of County Development Fund grants to non-profit organizations because of Heltzer's absence.

Final approval of the 2010 county budget and property tax levy will come at the board's Dec. 15 meeting.