The Houston, Minn., County Board of Commissioners thoroughly discussed the proposed tax levy for the county at their September 26 meeting. Originally a proposed levy of 8.7% was suggested once the proposed budget for the year had been presented.
Bob Burns, District 3 Commissioner, presented a list of possible changes to the board which would have resulted in a net levy of 6.861% to balance the budget. Burns noted that if more money was needed, it would need to come out of the county’s fund balances.
Part of the proposed cuts was $30,000 from the sheriff’s department for vehicles. It was pointed out that the vehicles were a necessary expense that would have to be paid for one way or another.
Eric Johnson, District 2 Commissioner, opined that by making cuts, they were cutting items they still would need to cover out of fund balances. Johnson felt they were once again looking at the levy of 8.7% originally presented to them with the budget. Johnson expressed his concern for people on fixed budgets, noting that the cities’ levies were going to increase as well as the schools’.
Burns responded that he was not comfortable with an 8% or 9% levy; he felt the budgets simply had to be cut.
The jail budget was looked at as a potential place to save money. The budget for the jail was $1.56 million for last year and $1.74 million for the coming year. Johnson suggested closing the jail and housing inmates elsewhere could save money. Currently, an average of six inmates are held at the jail each day; right now there is only one.
Burns said his intent was to keep the jail open this year. He felt that once the jail was closed, it would be hard to reopen it if they needed to. Burns noted that staff was looking into a frozen meal option to save money.
Bob Schuldt, District 4 Commissioner, pointed out that if they needed to transport inmates elsewhere, it would put more work on city law enforcement staff.
District 5 Commissioner Greg Myhre noted that the county could have a holding cell. Myhre felt that a public hearing should be held regarding the possibility of closing the jail.
Ultimately, the commissioners passed a levy not to exceed 7%. The roll call vote showed Johnson opposed to the levy. This levy would allow for the $30,000 for vehicles to be added back into the budget and keep the jail open for now.
Using that proposed levy, the preliminary total operating budget ended up to be $32,872,401. The board approved that budget with Johnson opposed.
A public hearing will be held later in the year regarding the closing of the jail. A truth-in-taxation meeting will be held December 12 at 6 p.m.
Nate Barker, a Wabasha County detective, attended the meeting to present current information about the Regional Fraud Prevention and Investigation program. Through a grant funded through the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Barker serves Goodhue, Wabasha, Houston and Winona Counties.
In Houston County, Barker reported he completed 16 cases with two resulting in a disqualification for SNAP benefits. Overpayments of $16,455 had been made. Barker shared that Houston County has 10% of the cases; there were 173 cases in the region with 12 disqualifications and almost $305,000 in overpayments. The $90,000 grant has a cost benefit return of 7 to 1. Next year’s budget of $119,704 was recently approved; this covers the vehicle, salary and insurance for the program. `
Barker explained that they are not targeting people, but are reactive in their investigations. If public health or individuals find issues, they complete a referral form. Barker then checks into it. Barker pointed out that the cases are a small portion of people receiving benefits. The goal of the program is to keep benefits from going to unqualified people.
Wild Cat Manager
Amber Miller, manager of Wild Cat Campground this year, spoke during the public comment period to question the hiring procedure of the board. Miller spoke using extensive notes detailing the hiring process and dates for her position.
Miller said she had submitted a proposal aligned with what had been done previously. Apparently, after she was selected, there were changes in the contract and doubts were raised about her being in the position. Two of the changes in the contract were about the provision of bathroom supplies and whether the manager would retain concession stand profits.
Miller noted she had invested $15,000 in the endeavor. With no finalized contract available at the April 25 meeting, the board had used Miller’s version at their meeting.
Miller declared, “This isn’t about me – it’s about Houston County, Wild Cat Campground and America! The public needs confidence in the integrity of the commissioners. I have nothing to gain. This is a calling for truth.”
Miller felt that some of the county officials had attempted to give the position to the runner up instead of her.
Johnson apologized for what happened to MIller, “I hear and share your frustration.”
In other business, the board:
Approved contracts for painting of road lines with Sir Lines-A-Lot; for maintenance rock with Bruening Rock Products; for bridge replacement on CSAH 12 with Minnowa Construction; for bituminous seal coating with Scott Construction, Inc,;
• Approved Houston County Hauler Licenses for Midwest Roll Off, Two Guys and a Dumpster, and Caledonia Haulers;
• Adopted the 2023-2024 fee schedule;
• Approved the addition of a self-service portal to the Case Works program.
• The next meeting of the Houston County Commissioners is Tuesday, October 3, at 9 a.m. in the County Commission Board Room 222 of the historic county courthouse, Caledonia. The public is welcome to attend.