With discussion seemingly getting nowhere, Board Chair Galen Malecha called for a motion to adjourn.

Repeating a pair of requests from Commissioner Steve Underdahl, fellow Rice County board member Jeff Docken pressed his colleagues Sept. 17 to give the county administrator some guidance on how and where to cut the proposed 2020 budget, making the preliminary tax levy more palatable. But despite some rumblings and a tidbit here and there, commissioners gave County Administrator Sara Folsted almost no guidance on how to reduce a levy that could rise by 7.4% next year.

That was the figure Folsted and County Finance Director Paula O’Connell put before the Rice County Board of Commissioners. If that increase is approved next week and finalized in December, it would bring in an additional $1.97 million in 2020.

But O’Connell cautioned that changes in the levy can be deceptive, and that an increase in the levy doesn’t always correlate to an increase in an individual’s property taxes. And it certainly doesn’t mean every property owner will pay that percentage more in taxes. A number of factors play into property tax calculations, including changes in valuation, valuation changes compared to changes for other properties and any change in the market value of all taxable properties.

A better guideline, says O’Connell, is the tax rate, which is used to calculate property taxes.

A 7.4% increase in Rice County’s levy, she said, would equal a drop of .01% in the tax rate. In 2019, the county’s tax rate decreased by almost three quarters of a point. That was preceded by a 2018 increase of .6%. If tax rate for 2020 remains -.01, Rice County’s tax rate over the last three year will have dropped by .15%.

Folsted didn’t present specifics on the proposed 2020 budget, but said her plan increases personnel costs by almost $2.5 million. Some of that is due to cost of living adjustments and benefits negotiated with county unions, but some would be attributable to new positions. Of the six she discussed Tuesday, four of those would be funded with outside funds. The other two, one at the Sheriff’s Office and the other in Human Services, would come online mid year.

The county is getting an increase in state aid of $380,000 over 2019. That’s expected to drop again in 2021, by about $80,000. Folsted that’s attributable to the county’s growth. Growing counties receive less assistance from the state, she said.

Rice County expects to bring in $1.14 million from the wheelage tax, an annual fee on each vehicle registered in the county. That money needs to be used to improve county roads and bridges.

Another line item in the 2020 budget that doesn’t appear each year: a presidential primary. That’s budgeted at $150,000.

Docken said he’d like to see the levy increase by no more than 6%, but like his colleagues had few ideas how to accomplish that. As an aside, Docken said he’d like the county to make a larger contribution to Rice Soil and Water Conservation District. District leaders requested $220,383 for 2020, but Folsted has budgeted $211,907, the same as in 2019.

Commissioner Dave Miller made a plug for the county take over the mowing at the county fairgrounds.

“I’m not thrilled with the 7.4% levy,” said Miller. “I can live with the 7.4% levy. Government costs money.”

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

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