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County adopts budget with 4.6 percent tax increase

With only two supervisors objecting and with little discussion, the St. Croix County Board adopted a budget Nov. 10 that raises the property tax levy 4.6 percent.

While votes on bonds will come later, the 2010 and subsequent budgets rely on borrowing the county's full $3.36-million allocation of Recovery Zone Economic Development Bonds. The county will have to repay the debt but receives the benefit of low interest through a federal subsidy.

"I feel like we're a teenager with daddy's credit card," protested Supervisor Lorin Sather, River Falls, objecting to full use of the Recovery Zone borrowing.

"We're borrowing against our future," said Sather. "We're digging ourselves a deeper hole."

In the final days of budget work, the Finance Committee made plans to use the bonds to pay for $592,000 worth of 2010 budget requests, over $1 million of capital projects planned for future years and $1.66 million for highway repair and maintenance projects.

"I feel that the team let us down here; we didn't meet the goal," said Supervisor Steve Hermsen, town of Hudson. Departments had been asked to limit their budget requests and the Finance Committee had originally planned to hold the levy increase to 1.25 percent, the percentage new construction added to the county's property valuations.

In the end, said Hermsen, the county's 2010 operating levy will be $2 million higher than the 2009 levy.

As the levy for debt service dropped, the county used the reduction in that area to "pile on spending" for operating expenses, said Hermsen.

"The real opportunity right now is to get ahead," said Administrative Coordinator Chuck Whiting. He said using the low-interest bonds for projects that wouldn't have come up until 2011 or 2012 should mean fewer requests in those years.

Also, he said, the county has become accustomed to making $2 million in debt payments each year. As the Government Center loan and jail strip search lawsuit settlement are paid off, the Recovery Zone bonds, and possibly loans for other building projects, can be phased in without increasing that payment level.

No one likes taxes, said Supervisor Buck Malick, who serves on the Finance Committee. He said the committee did try to stay within its goal increase.

"It just is not practical to do that," he said. The Highway Department's needs are dramatic, said Malick, and in hard times, the needs for social services and law enforcement don't decrease, they increase.

In the last four years, the Highway Department has fallen behind on maintenance projects, partially because of limited state funding, said Richard King, who chairs the Transportation Committee. He said the money from the bonds should help the department get caught up in the next two years.

During budget work, the board also voted to raise the county library levy by about $165,000 above the 2009 levy. That money, which is paid by property owners in the 19 towns and two villages that don't have their own libraries, is divided among public libraries.

State law requires that the county library levy cover at least 70 percent of the expense of rural patrons using municipal libraries. This year St. Croix's tax covered 71 percent. County Board action will raise that to 85 percent in 2010.

According to information provided by supporters of the increase, the 85 percent levy will raise taxes on a $200,000 home by less than $8 a year.

Supervisors said they have heard from only one town board opposed to increasing the library levy and most towns support the raise.

Because St. Croix County has relatively little commercial or manufacturing property, most of its property tax is paid by homeowners. Residential property makes up 77 percent of the county's property value; commercial property, 13 percent; and manufacturing, 2 percent.

Of the revenue to support county services, 37 percent comes from charges for service, 34 percent from the property tax levy, 17 percent from state and federal aids and the balance from other sources, according to a chart provided by Whiting.

No citizens spoke during the time set aside for public comments on the budget.

The tax levy resolution was adopted on a 25-2 vote of the board.