At a Truth in Taxation hearing Thursday evening, Rice County Administrator Sara Folsted presented a semi-final version of the 2020 budget. If approved later this month, it would include a levy slightly smaller than the preliminary figure approved in September.
Nonetheless, residents expressed frustration that with rising property values, they’re likely to see their levy increase in 2020. Folsted pointed to analysis showing that on a per capita basis, Rice County has some of the lowest county taxes in the state. At just over $400, Rice County’s per capita levy ranks in the top five counties in the state for property tax affordability. Le Sueur and Goodhue counties have much higher property taxes, and taxpayers in northeast Minnesota’s Cook County pay nearly $2,000 per capita.
“We’re operating at a quarter of what some Minnesota counties are,” noted Folsted.
Rice County’s rising property taxes are driven by the increasing personnel costs. Cost of living adjustments and benefits are set to cost the County $2.55 million in 2020. Without that increase, the levy would actually be less than last year’s.
Those additional expenditures will also help to cover the addition of several new hires. Folsted says additional staff are needed at the Sheriff’s Office, County Jail and Department of Human Services to accommodate increasing workload and decrease overtime pay.
With the cost of increased personnel, commissioners pushed staff to hold the line on other expenditures so as to maintain Rice County’s low tax status. As a result, the road and bridge fund will actually receive less funding than last year.
While the county’s low taxes are appealing to businesses and families, commissioners have acknowledged that they come with a tradeoff, limiting crucial investments in public services.
For example, the state recently threatened to demote the jail to a 90-day detention facility due to inadequate facilities. Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn, who obtained a temporary postponement of the 90-day designation, estimated that this change could cost Rice County taxpayers $500,000 a year.
Nonetheless, the county’s “Performance Measurement Review” showed significant improvements in the delivery of public services from 2016 to 2018. They include an improvement in pavement quality and a decrease in snowplow times. In addition, veterans gave the County Veterans Office has a 100% satisfaction rate for the third consecutive year.
The current version of the budget is similar to earlier versions which had an increase of 7.4%, which commissioners criticized as too high. Most of the difference came from savings from new countywide phone system, not budget cuts.