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Beltrami only county with property tax decrease

Beltrami County will be the only Minnesota county in 2011 with a property tax levy less than the year before, says Board Chairman Jack Frost.

Commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved a 2011 property tax levy of $16.9 million and a 2011 county budget of $54.2 million. The levy is 0.43 percent lower, or $73,513 less than this year's levy.

"I believe Beltrami County is the only county of 87 in the state to lower its property taxes for 2011," Frost said.

"I know of few counties, if any, that have managed to reduce the levy," said Commissioner Joe Vene. "It is commendable, but how we sustain ourselves over time is another matter."

But while cutting property taxes, several commissioners said more could be done.

"I also see an opportunity to snug that thing up some more," said Commissioner Jim Lucachick. "The budget has grown in the past 10 years, I feel we can still keep programs and rework the budget."

Commissioner Jim Heltzer said he thought commissioners don't spent enough time going over the budget. Staff, led by County Administrator Tony Murphy, prepare the budget and then commissioners throughout the fall meet with department heads over their budget.

"We make our best guess," Heltzer said. "The greatest amount of county money goes to human services and we spend an hour on it."

The human services budget, at $17.5 million, is 32.4 percent of the county budget.

Heltzer would rather have lengthier sessions, going over the county budget line by line to find waste and duplication.

"My problem is with the process," he said. "We end up with so little time to work out the budget. We need to look at the intricacies of this budget. I'm not pleased with this process.

"It puts governance of the county almost completely in the hands of the staff," Heltzer added.

He asked Murphy if the budget included any funding for the DWI Court, and Murphy said there wasn't. The court provides intensive supervision over convicted drunken drivers who volunteer for the program.

"It is one of only two programs that I know is successful," he said.

Murphy said the DWI Court has enough funding to last through September, and that the County Board can look at the funding issue then. "What needs to happen is a good dialog over permanent funding."

The county has reserve funding in its budget to cover the $20,000 need for the last three months of 2011, Murphy said, but he'd also like to study the budget to see if efficiencies could reduce the $20,000 in lost grant money.

Heltzer also wanted to add $25,000 to the County Development Fund, which is budgeted at $75,000. The fund is raised through timber sales on county lands, with up to $5 per county resident allowed from timber revenues to the County Development Fund.

Timber sales have been down, so the fund will only have $75,000 to distribute to community non-profits, Murphy said.

There are $115,890 in requests from 10 organizations.

Heltzer asked to amend the Community Development Fund budget to $100,000. "It would be a lot easier to appropriate in January," he said.

"There is a significant fund reserve in the Community Development Fund and you can allocate from that," Murphy said.

The board left the fund at $75,000, and will consider allocating it to the organizations in January.

The $16.9 million property tax levy includes $15.2 million for regular levies for revenue fund ($7.64 million), human services ($5.4 million) and road and bridge ($2.1 million). Also included is $1.7 million in special levies, mostly for debt service on county buildings.

Commissioners also approved their 2011 salary at $20,753.67, the same as this year, and kept per diems at $50 a day for non-County Board designated committee meetings and trips.

Also approved Tuesday was a five-year Capital Improvement Program and a 2011 county fee list.