"You can't keep taxing property owners more and more … a three percent increase should be enough," said Carlton County Board Chair Ted Pihlman at the regular Carlton County Board meeting on September 11 at the Transportation Building with all commissioners present. The county board went on record with a vote of 3-2, Pihlman and Brenner voting no, to set a preliminary levy with a 6.3 percent increase for the new budget year.
The Budget Committee had come back with a proposed budget with a 6.6 percent levy increase. Commissioner Pihlman as acting chairman sits on that committee. Outside of the slow economic growth in the area, the county budget has faced pressure from ballooning corrections and probation costs. Human Services expenditures and staff needs have risen only slightly — well within the less than three percent inflation rate.
Both Human Services and the Highway Department roughly have the same budget in real dollars. Both benefit from federal and state dollars, special grants and program funding, the gasoline tax for road and bridge projects, and the list of funding sources can go on at length. The local levy that comes from property tax levies brings in 6.3 million dollars for Health and Human Services and 2.7 million dollars for the Highway Department, a notable difference.
"I've been knocking on doors during this election season," commented commissioner Dick Brenner, "and at the door older residents give me stories about their unaffordable property tax bills that would curl your hair. Three percent is enough for an increase in the levy."
Paul Gassert, county auditor and treasurer, turned several heads at the meeting when he said, "You tell me what you want done … I can make a four, three, or zero increase in the budget if you want. I need a direction. You are the ones that set the priorities."
To arrive at the 6.3 percent levy proposal, $60,000 or .3 percent was dropped from the proposed levy. The Carlton County Domestic Abuse program had been promised that $60,000 funding package to compliment $90,000, perhaps $95,000, in state funding which was lost for the coming fiscal year. The future of the program is in doubt.
Reaction to the possible end of the Carlton County Domestic Abuse program was swift. Retired director of the Volunteer Attorney Program, Patty Murto, responded, "The Carlton County Domestic Abuse program has been the safety net of last resort for hundreds and hundreds of families over the years. A strong voice and legal avenues for women in need of support and safety is in jeopardy. Other funding must be found. We need to keep our endangered family members safe and free from victimization."
"I was on the county board for several years," continued Murto, "and funding issues arose for short periods of time where the county stepped in to ensure a program's survival until new funding sources were found. Ending such a program puts literally scores of families in jeopardy — this cannot happen. I don't know what the board was thinking to even consider such a move."
In other business, Community Development received approval for a loan/grant administrator and an office support specialist. These are two full-time positions. Community Development has currently eight load and grant programs to administer.
"Are these positions funded?" asked commissioner Brenner.
"These are budget neutral positions," responded Pat Oman, Carlton County Executive Director of the Economic Development Commission. "Funding for administration is covered when the money is applied for. No dollars come from the property tax levy."