Talking about taxes isn’t fun for anyone. And that includes the Rice County Board of Commissioners.

Despite repeated pleas from its administrator, Sara Folsted, the board — minus Commissioner Galen Malecha who was absent during the Sept. 3 meeting — had difficulty giving her a 2020 levy target to hit.

Folsted startled the board, telling them that if every request she’d received from county staff for 2020 was funded, Rice County would add the equivalent of almost 17 full-time positions and that the levy would skyrocket 18.68% percent. Following discussions with department heads, that figure has dropped by about half, to 9.3%, she said.

Folsted didn’t say how many new positions she’d like to add in 2020, but noted that some of those requested come with funding sources. While others would be partially funded by outside entities, county officials are working to see if full funding can be obtained.

Some of the new positions, if approved, would have an upfront cost, but reduce the need for services going forward, thereby saving money in the long run, according to the administrator.

She pointed to Project Intercept, a program that began early this year and involves voluntary screenings for those jailed in the county to test for chemical or mental health issues. The program allows inmates to receive needed services sooner than before and ends the “revolving door” of criminals coming right back to jail just a few weeks after their release.

County Social Services Director Mark Shaw last year told the Daily News that the program would give arrestees the opportunity to take control of their recovery.

“(They) save costs and make our community better for the future,” Folsted said of the programs, noting the value in being proactive. “If you (just) react, you don’t solve the problem.”

Out of its control

Another issue: the County Attorney’s Office is required to pay for some legal necessities outside its control, including guardians, conservators and bailiffs for jury trials. This year, the county had a two-week criminal trial and a three-week civil trial.

“No one (at the county) is in control of it,” said Rice County Attorney John Fossum, “because people who are in control of it are state employees.”

It’s been an issue for his office for years, he said.

“We can’t not file child protection cases. We can’t not filed paternity cases because there’s going to be a cost.”

County services

Commissioners lamented that while all governmental budgeting is a balancing act, it’s perhaps more so for Minnesota counties as a large portion of its services are required by the state. Some of those come without state funding, putting county taxpayers alone on the hook for those services.

Commenting on the proposed 9.3% levy increase, Commissioner Jeff Docken felt that “there might be a little shaving here and there, but I’m guessing not a lot.”

He later suggested Folsted keep the tax rate flat, a decision he felt would have little impact on taxpayers due to industrial growth in the county.

On the other hand, Commissioner Dave Miller wondered aloud about Rice County having one of the lowest (85th of 87 counties) tax rates in the state.

“That’s something to be proud of,” he said, “but at the same time are we providing the services for our citizens?”

The board is expected to approve a preliminary 2020 tax levy at its Sept. 24 meeting.

Reach Regional Managing Editor Suzanne Rook at 507-333-3134. Follow her on Twitter @rooksuzy.

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