County Board sets levy with 3.5 percent increase

Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

Fillmore County’s commissioners convened for the final regular meeting of 2019, passing motions to approve the 2020 final property tax levy and budget and finishing up work that needed attention before the end of the year. 

County administrator Bobbie Vickerman called for votes on the 2020 budget and 2019 property tax levy payable in 2020, and commissioners Mitch Lentz and Larry Hindt made the motions for the budget to be set at $32,872,530 and the levy at $11,196,215.  The levy is a 3.5 percent increase from last year’s levy.

Preparing for election

Auditor-Treasurer Heidi Jones spoke to the commissioners about the potential costs of the upcoming presidential primary to be held next spring, citing that her department hopes that a figure can be pinned down for the county’s budget so that it doesn’t come as an unexpected expense.  She noted that the county might receive a state election grant.

“The state is possibly awarding us $5,000 per precinct, and the main thing we are wanting to do is update to the Omni-Ballot instead of the AutoMark because the new Omni-Ballot provides the same thing for people who are hard of hearing or use Braille,” she said.  “It’s a voter-assistance tool, and you need only one for every shared precinct, so you’re not going to need one for all 37 precincts.” 

Truth-in-Taxation information

Jones also told the commissioners that with property taxes and property values changing, she’d like to send information to households in the county to remind residents of why they should attend the annual Truth-in-Taxation public hearing each December. The hearing outlines for residents how their tax money is spent to keep county government in motion, unlike the board of equalization, which is held in the spring and is an opportunity for residents to challenge their property values. 

“Citizens definitely need to come in and ask when something doesn’t look right,” Commissioner Duane Bakke agreed.

Salary requests

Jones registered her salary request for 2020, explaining to the commissioners that the $92,617.61 she stated is 95 percent of the salaries of auditor-treasurers serving surrounding counties. 

After that, county recorder Dave Kiehne presented his elected official’s salary request of $76,000, supporting it with the consideration that some of the duties of the recorder’s office have changed beyond the original duties. 

The commissioners will make a decision regarding salaries in January. 

County 5 project

Highway engineer Ron Gregg appeared before the board with a request for approval to pay $20,944 in delivery costs for TDA Green Aggregate for shredded tires and lightweight fill for the land bridge project that will take place on County State Aid Highway (CSAH) 5, where the road has continuously washed out and is currently a length of gravel.  Gregg explained that the shredded tires are one of the components that will help with the construction of the land bridge and that there is no cost for the material, but that having it delivered during the winter would save costs.  He noted that he brought the item to the board for approval now because even though there is no project underway, the out-of-season difference makes enough fiscal sense that he felt it would be prudent to bring it forward. 

“It’s coming from Isanti, Minnesota, and we’ll stockpile it in the Chatfield shop for the time being because it’s a short distance from where the land bridge will be built,” he said. 

Commissioners Randy Dahl and Marc Prestby made the motions for the payment.

Vehicle purchase

Gregg also introduced information on purchasing two new vehicles for the county, as there is feedlot grant funding available to help pay for them.  He related that he had obtained quotes from Spring Valley Chevrolet Buick in Spring Valley and from the state bid-holder, being given figures that were so close that it was difficult to decide, given that one vehicle in question is a 2019 and the other, a 2020, both with no miles on them.  Two of the county’s Impala fleet cars would be traded in as part of the deal, getting an initial return of $2,500 per car. 

However, with the involvement of feedlot grant money came the question of whether the county should buy just one car because of the calendar requirements of the feedlot grant. 

Dahl also registered his opposition to trading in either of the Impalas because he felt that if maintained, they could further serve the county’s needs, but debate ensued regarding whether to keep the Impala in question or trade it in. 

“Here’s my opinion…you either maintain a vehicle or you don’t, but 90 percent of the time, 99 percent of the time…it’s a loose gas cap or something,” he said.  “They’re decent vehicles, serviceable, worth more than $900 (total after fees) in a trade-in, and whether you sell them outright or keep them, that’s another thing.” 

After reviewing the costs to find the amount that would be spent on only one vehicle instead of two, the state bid without a trade came in at $25,046.08, and the local dealership in Spring Valley offered a 2019 Equinox LS for $24,483 without trade. 

Dahl made a motion for “the straight purchase of the LS Equinox at $24,483.”  The motion passed 3-2 with Bakke and Lentz opposing as they preferred the state bid.

Social Services contracts

Kevin Olson, of Social Services, presented a list of contracts for the board’s ratification, including the 2020 contract between WDI and Fillmore County for employment services contracting, as well as a contract between Hiawatha Valley and Fillmore County for services, seeking approval to accept 2020 targeted case management between Fillmore County and Zumbro Valley Mental Health, and the 2020 crisis management between Fillmore County and Zumbro Valley Mental Health for detox.  All were given the commissioners’ nod.

DHS $29,000 error

Other matters encompassed an accounting error to the tune of $29,000 for which the Department of Human Services is attempting to have counties reimburse the federal government for substance abuse interventions. Gov. Tim Walz advised counties that they should be held harmless.

Refugee settlement

Refugee resettlement was also a matter that garnered public comment during the board’s public input as Holt Township resident Bonita Underbakke urged the commissioners to carefully consider their actions in addressing an executive order issued by the federal government that oversees how refugees are accepted in cities and towns. 

Pam Seebach, of Newburg Township and a member of the ministerial community, also reminded the commissioners to take care when deciding how to proceed with the order that will essentially determine where refugees may be allowed to live. 

The board chose not to take action on the topic at this juncture but acknowledged the ramifications and the unwanted necessity of handling what they felt is a political maneuver by upper levels of government. 

Taser purchase

Sheriff John DeGeorge asked that the commissioners approve the purchase of an Axon taser using funds from DWI forfeiture funds.

Regarding tasers, DeGeorge explained to the board that all of the county’s deputies carry tasers, that Axon recently discontinued maintenance of the model that they have and that the battery packs for them are no longer viable. 

“The taser has been such a great tool for us – it’s deescalated so many situations,” he said. “We have 18 tasers, and it’s $1,455 apiece for tasers, a holster for each taser, two cartridges…$26,190 over five years.” 

Votes passed for the replacement of tasers, using available DWI forfeiture funding.   

DeGeorge also requested the 2020 Motorola one-year service agreement to be paid from 911 grant funds to help with the advanced replacement of the emergency dispatch console at a cost of approximately $250,000. Commissioners gave approval to this request as well.  

Cell phone policy

Human resources officer Kristina Kohn addressed 2020 phone stipends for county employees who receive reimbursement for use of their personal cell phones.

The commissioners observed that in several departments, there are employees who do not accept the phone stipend.  Vickerman asked that her phone be removed from the phone stipend list for next year because she had added family members to her cell phone plan and still come out with a discount, agreeing still that it is part of her job as a public employee to respond to phone calls from county residents.

Kohn also made a request to hire Sandy Solberg as a regular status 0.5 full-time equivalent employee effective Jan. 1 as requested by the county recorder.  The board decided after some discussion that the topic would be better addressed in January. 

Recycling fees change

Solid waste administrator Drew Hatzenbihler approached the board with updated pricing and tipping fees for 2020, seeking an increase for the amount charged for appliances because scrap metal prices are down, and the county pays $5 per appliance disposal. “I think we need to recover more of that,” he said, requesting that pricing be adjusted for various kinds of discarded items to help the county break even. 

Other business

The consent agenda included approving the minutes of the Dec. 3 board minutes, the Dec. 3 Truth-in-Taxation public hearing minutes, closure of County Road 21 for Canton’s holiday parade retroactively as the closure was preapproved by DeGeorge and Gregg, and granting an overnight stay for Jones to attend an annual conference Feb. 11 to 13.  The board held its annual road tour of Fillmore County’s roads immediately after the meeting to take note of the bumps and curves that need the Highway Department’s attention.