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Paynesville Press - December 29 , 2004

County board approves budget and levy

By Michael Jacobson

The Stearns County Board of Commissioners took the following actions at their meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 14.

*The commissioners adopted a budget and levy for 2005. Spending increased only 2.5 percent over 2004 with most of those dollars going to the sheriff's department for additional staff and to the highway department. The county budget for 2005 is $90 million.

The tax levy for 2005 is $46 million, an increase of 9.4 percent over 2004. Although the levy is up, homeowners will not see a tax increase unless their valuations went up because of the growth in Stearns County and the increasing tax base.

* The board a three percent salary increase for 2005. Commissioner salaries will go from $29,680 to $30,570. Last year, the commissioners voted to freeze their salaries in light of the budget crunch. Unlike most other counties, Stearns does not pay per diems, additional pay for attending meetings.

The commissioners will determine salaries for other elected officials, such as the sheriff and county attorney, at a later date.

*The commissioners discussed issues of concern in the upcoming legislative session with Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson (DFL-Willmar). The commissioners stressed their top priorities as transportation funding, a bonding bill, and relief from state mandates.

The commissioners agreed transportation funding has become the most critical issue facing Stearns County. With rapid growth and a lack of highway dollars to follow suit, this is a vital issue for Stearns County.

Senator Johnson reported on a transportation funding study that found by 2025 the state would need $38 billion to fund roads but would only have $14 billion. He also pointed out that Minnesota didn't receive $150 million in federal transportation dollars because of a failed transportation bill this year. Also, according to Senator Johnson, under a proposed change by the Department of Transportation, greater Minnesota stands to lose some transportation funding at the expense of the metro area to support larger highway projects.

Commissioner Mark Sakry pointed out the importance of getting a bonding bill passed quickly this year. A bonding bill is needed to get funding for the Sauk Rapids Bridge. Delays have already driven up the construction price tag due in part to the higher price on steel. Also in the bonding bill is improvements to the St. Cloud Technical College, which once remodeled will house the Stearns-Benton Employment Training Council, which has nowhere to move unless the remodeling takes place.

Commissioner Larry Haws again stressed the necessity for mandate relief. Eighty percent of what county governments do is mandated by the state. Currently, Stearns County complies with approximately 5,000 mandates. Commissioner Haws said that needs to change to make better use of our dollars. "You tell us what to do, how to do it, how many times to do it, and how well to do it. Our hands are tied. Let us decide how we can better provide that service," said Haws.

Haws also talked about "shifting costs," such as moving inmates with only six months left on their sentences out of prison and into local county jails. "It's a way for you to help balance your budget, but it breaks ours," he said.

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