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County eyes 4.48 percent levy increase

BEMIDJI--With rising costs and a revenue stream ending, the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday to pass a preliminary tax levy increase of 4.48 percent and a budget that will impact staffing levels.

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BEMIDJI-With rising costs and a revenue stream ending, the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday to pass a preliminary tax levy increase of 4.48 percent and a budget that will impact staffing levels.

The impacts from county staffing was the main topic at Tuesday's meeting as County Administrator Kay Mack informed the board about staff reductions, promotions and hires.

A reduction of an attorney and a legal assistant in County Attorney David Hanson's office was discussed. That move is based on a contract that's ending with the city of Bemidji to handle misdemeanor cases. At the end of the year, when the contract expires, the city will take over misdemeanor cases in house.

"The Beltrami County Attorney's Office is almost understaffed now to a 2 to 1 ratio," Hanson said Tuesday. "We're working at 190 percent right now. Losing the contract does reduce the workload, but that would bring us down to maybe the 175 or 160 percent mark. We're still going to be understaffed even with the reduction."

Hanson said this is partly because the county still will be handling felony type cases in the city limits, as well as both misdemeanors and felonies outside the Bemidji city limits.

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"Frankly, the work we're losing is the 'easy work,' to put it bluntly," Hanson said. "We're keeping the hard work, the felonies and we're losing staff. So, it's going to be a burden."

Other staff changes in the proposed budget include adjustments at the Sheriff's Office. For that department, the proposed budget adds another deputy, promotes a current deputy to a new position of captain and adds a new evidence technician.

In the Health and Human Services Department, the proposed budget adds a cultural coordinator and Indian Child Welfare Act specialist, which are supported by state funding.

Other staff changes include hiring a 10-hour per week custodian and a solid waste technician. According to county documents, financially, all of these staffing changes equate to adding 1.75 full-time employees to the levy.

The preliminary levy set Tuesday is $23,477,089, a 5.83 percent increase from the 2018 amount of $22,183,233. According to Mack, though, when accounting for new tax capacity in the amount of $318,141, the net levy comes to $23,158,948, or a 4.48 percent increase.

"We did not take this lightly. It was a really difficult summer putting this budget together," said District 2 Commissioner Reed Olson, who sat on this year's Budget Committee. "Over the next five years, we're really going to have to take a hard look at our staffing levels and make sure our human services, county attorneys and sheriff's office is adequately staffed."

"I have questions I don't know if I'll get answers for. How much revenue did we lose with the relocation of the Line 3 pipeline? That's a question that will go unanswered," District 5 Commissioner Jim Lucachick said. "We continue to discuss how our county is growing, and that we have more calls for our sheriff's office and more needs from our Health and Human Services Department. But, the revenue never seems to go up, the other side doesn't come up. We go back to the people who do pay taxes and we just keep beating on them."

"The thing is, as a county, we don't get to choose whether or not we provide the services. If someone qualifies for a services, or if they commit a crime and go in the legal system, we are obliged to provide services," Olson said. "However, there's not matching revenue from the state to meet that. That's what I see as our big gap. We are a very high need county with a very low tax base. I think we need to talk with our legislators and go to St. Paul and lobby on our behalf, because we clearly need relief."

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The preliminary levy was set in a 4-1 vote, with Commissioners Richard Anderson, Olson, Tim Sumner and Keith Winger supporting and Lucachick against. The final levy for the county will be set in December and can be lowered, but not raised.

Related Topics: BELTRAMI COUNTY
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