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Beltrami County Board: Property tax cut proposed; 2010 draft budget plan released

Beltrami County Administrator Tony Murphy explains his 2011 county budget proposal, calling for a property tax cut of 0.43 percent, during the County Board's meeting Tuesday at the Eckles Community Center. Behind him is County Attorney Tim Faver. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

ECKLES TOWNSHIP -- Beltrami County's proposed 2011 budget calls for a 0.43 percent property tax decrease, according to the draft budget released here Tuesday.

The proposed 2011 property tax levy of $16.9 million is $73,513 less than this year's property tax levy, said County Administrator Tony Murphy.

"We worked very hard for that," Murphy told commissioners, who moved their regular meeting to the Eckles Community Center where more county staff attended than the public.

"I think it is a responsible budget," he said. "We haven't had to real draconian about cutting services, cutting programs, to get there."

Nothing really changed between this year and last year, when commissioners outlined a 2011 budget when setting the 2010 budget. "The Legislature didn't make any huge changes ... we were pretty well positioned."

Murphy admitted much of the decrease comes from the County Highway Department, where the road and bridge levy is dictated by scheduled work projects and state aid allocations. That levy of $2.11 million is down $65,839 or a decrease of 3.03 percent.

The revenue fund levy which fuels most of county government's offices is up 2.25 percent, or $168,200, to $7.6 million.

"We requested back in an earlier budget session that wages" be frozen, asked Commissioner Jim Lucachick.

"Wages and benefits have been budgeted as you directed," Murphy said. "We will have collective bargaining and we don't know how that will turn out."

"You did do what we asked," Lucachick said.

"We have budgeted as you asked," Murphy said.

Murphy also said the budget proposal includes no staff increases, and keeps in place a "soft" hiring freeze in which each additional staff request or move to fill a vacancy must have prior approval of the County Board.

The human services levy is $$.42 million, or $45,974 less than this year, a 0.84 percent cut. But that's a little shaky, Murphy said, as the state Department of Human Services has yet to submit its reimbursement allocations for 2011.

Several special levies also see significant changes. The $300,000 annual jail debt service levy goes off in 2011, and the Law Enforcement Center debt service levy drops from $350,000 to $50,000.

As a result, total revenues from all sources to county government are expected to total $54.22 million, down from $58.52 million this year. The biggest decrease there is in intergovernmental funds -- state and federal funds -- which drop from $27.53 million to $23.66 million.

The county budget draft, which will be up for preliminary approval Sept. 7, meets three policy directives of the County Board, Murphy said. The first was to hold the line on property taxes, and the draft actually reduces the tax.

"Another directive from the County Board was to reduce our dependence on general aid from the state, as over time we've become quite dependent on County Program Aid and PILT payments to keep our levy down," he said, referred to state aid programs such as payment-in-lieu-of property taxes.

When Gov. Tim Pawlenty has unllotted Local Government Aid to cities, the order has also included similar aid to counties in the form of County Program Aid.

"We want to reduce those aids because, quite frankly, the state continues to target those as cuts," Murphy said. The draft budget proposes reducing CPA by $1.2 million and PILT by $323,000. "Between the two of them, we're over $1.5 million reduction in dependence on general aid. I feel good about that, because if County Program Aid went away and PILT went away, that creates about a $5 million hole in our budget."

A third objective, he said, was to "try to become less incremental in our budget approach," he said. "Counties and cities get into this bad habit of looking at last year's budget and adding a percent or some sort of incremental adjustment. We try to be more disciplined. We try to tie our spending with the actual results that were purchased."

The budget book dedicates a chapter to outcome-based budgeting in line with the county's new management strategy aligned along five theme areas: Resource Excellence, Safe Neighborhoods, Caring Community, Expanding Opportunity and Results-Oriented Government.

"What we've looking for is a much policy direction as possible," Murphy said. "We're demonstrating to you that if you give us policy direction, we'll do what we can to move in those directions."

But the budget is looking at the big picture, not line-item purchases of pens or paperclips.

"You're looking at this mainly as a policy-steering document," Murphy said. "You can still see some of the spending trends ... but if you're looking to see how much stationary went up or down in some of these departments. We'll really not focusing at that level."

Murphy said it was an "honor and a privilege" to work with county staff in preparing the budget, with staff more concerned about the overall county picture than in protecting their own turf.

Once the County Board sets the property tax preliminary levy on Sept. 7, it can only alter it by lowering it. A final levy and budget will be adopted in December.