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Ropes has dialogue with county board


Fri, Aug 14th, 2009
Posted in Government

State Senator Sharon Ropes reviewed details of the last legislative session and took notes on commissioner concerns to be explored in the next session at their August 11 meeting. Ropes continues to make an effort to visit cities, townships and counties in her district.

In a statement about the last session, she explained the state was not in deficit, but it was projected there would be a $6.4 billion deficit in the coming biennium. Governor Tim Pawlenty and the legislature agreed on how to reduce the budget by about $4 billion by streamlining and actual cuts. With the final bill, which was vetoed by the governor, there was no agreement as the DFL-led legislature wanted a progressive tax schedule to make up the remaining $2 billion or so. Ropes said the 3% of taxpayers with a personal income of $300,000 would have had a tax increase of $106 per year. She stressed this was not on business income, but personal income. They had also passed an increased tax of 2 cents on each beer or wine drink and 3 cents on a mixed drink. The governor vetoed the bill because of the tax increases and opted for use of the unallotment authority.

Ropes said the recession has slowed considerably, but there will still be more projected deficits. She acknowledged, "Whatever we do at the state lands in your lap." She criticized the governor for the $1.8 billion shift of school payments into the next year. Ropes insisted that with no revenue to fill the hole, the shift just creates a $1.8 billion deficit in the coming year. She described the shift as a financial gimmick to make the columns add up in the budget. It is a promise to pay the schools in the next year except there is "no money in the bank." She expects at least another two years of budgeting difficulties.

More accurate forecast figures to base the next budget on will be available in November and February.

Chairman Chuck Amunrud noted the county intends to have a basically flat levy. He asked her if current levy limits imposed by the state will still be in place after the governor leaves office. Amunrud questioned whether revenue from the planned wind farms in Fillmore County will be figured into the local levy limits. She said maybe wind production revenue could be taken out of the Local Government Aid (LGA) formula.

Ropes did say the levy limits were part of the governor's initiative in 2008. He wanted them to be more restrictive and permanent. The legislature got him to compromise and set them for only three years. She explained the philosophical difference between the governor and the DFL-led legislature. The governor thinks government should be limited and squeezed small.

Amunrud said LGA was originally set up so the state could use a portion of the sales tax to help fund local governments. Commissioner Duane Bakke said LGA was meant to be an equalizer between districts with a high taxing capacity and those with a low taxing capacity.

Other concerns discussed included MnDot road maintenance as Commissioner Tom Kaase questioned the wisdom of improving the shoulder on Hwy 63 when the traveled part of the road was breaking up. She said she would speak to County Engineer John Grindeland about complications produced when groups interested in preserving historic bridges interfere with the county's ability to provide safe bridges economically.

Karen Brown noted that the county has been using part of their fund balance to balance the budget for several years. Ropes said when they get back to the capital, they will be looking at more cuts. She said, "I need to understand reality of situations back in home towns."

Kaase asked if legislators had taken a cut in pay like county employees and county elected officials have? Ropes said she has reduced her daily pay by 30% and has been working without staff since her one-staff assistant left to go to law school in June.

Sheriff Daryl Jensen expressed his concern about some of the five cities with law enforcement agreements, with the county not being able to continue, and the ability of the county to cover for them. Ropes said cities across the state are being squeezed into cutting basic services.

Ropes said responsibilities are being pushed down to counties, cities, townships, and school districts. The state isn't raising taxes, but the fact is the need doesn't go away. She made it clear that fees have gone up enormously under this governor. Amunrud said the state is charging $100 for an operating permit for an elevator. The court house has one, as does the office building. The fee is just a mechanism to collect money. Ropes remarked everyone can smell it pretty quickly if there is added on expense with no benefit.

Veterans' Cemetery

Senator Ropes said she had some good news for the county. Nationwide every one hundred miles there can be access to a veterans' cemetery. In every state there are regional veteran cemeteries. There isn't one in the area. She is going to try to get one in Fillmore County near Preston. It requires no local funding as the federal government pays for it and the state maintains it. It must be a minimum of 40 acres.

The cemetery would honor veterans in the area. The closest veterans' cemetery is at Fort Snelling. Amunrud expects it would bring in more visitors and have an economic benefit. Amunrud said one possible location could be at the county farm.

For now, Ropes was just looking to see if the board had an interest, which there was by consensus. She said she would work with County Coordinator Karen Brown to compose a letter to the Commission of Veteran Affairs and start the process. Ropes added this could be federal and state money coming home to Fillmore County.

BCHRA and Semcac Update

Wayne Stenberg, Bluff Country Multi-County Housing and Redevelopment Authority, serves Houston and Fillmore Counties. The organization, started in 1991, seeks to provide affordable housing for low and middle income families. Funds are used for home, energy saving and access improvements. Loans are available for families with incomes up to 80% of the area median income. The maximum loan amount is $7,500 and maximum term is 7 years at a 5% interest rate. For applications call Semcac at 507-864-7741.

If families are already getting energy assistance, they likely would qualify for a loan for weatherization. Stenberg says in an eight-county region, including Olmsted County, 300 homes are worked on per year to improve their energy efficiency. With the federal stimulus money, they expect to improve the energy efficiency of as many as 1,750 homes in the next two years.

Semcac dispersed over $5,000,000 in the county during the last two years in loans and grants to replace or fix homes after the 2007 flood. Eight homes have been improved after termite issues in Ostrander. The small cities of Peterson, Canton, and Whalan collectively will share $300,000 to improve homes in the future.

Budgets

The board continues to review and trim departmental budgets. As of August 7, the projected levy increase is 1.48% for 2010, which reflects a use of $295,000 of fund balance. This is down significantly from the projected levy increase on July 28, which was 7.36%.

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