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Commissioners at odds over funding

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WORTHINGTON -- Nobles County commissioners spent two hours Monday morning reviewing the 2012 budget in hopes of trimming a proposed 8 percent levy increase before the Dec. 8 Truth in Taxation public hearing.

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Commissioners have until Dec. 22 to take action on the budget.

Garnering the most discussion Monday was whether or not to fund the $300,000 ARMER (Allied Radio Matrix Emergency Response) system for public safety from an estimated $7 million in county reserves, or to instead collect it as a tax from county residents through the levy.

After some fine-tuning of the budget, County Administrator Mel Ruppert reported that the levy came in at 6.55 percent -- of which 3 percent represents funding for the ARMER system. If commissioners opted to pay for ARMER with reserves, it would reduce the overall levy request to 3.55 percent -- closer in line to the 2.91 percent levy they approved a year ago.

Commissioner David Benson was most vocal about not funding the ARMER system with reserves. He said it took years to build up the savings account, and with current interest rates garnering very little income, he didn't want to see those funds spent for a communications system. The $7 million in reserves is enough operating revenue to support the county for six and a half months.

"I'd rather use that reserves to fix the roads or redo a bridge, not to pay for ARMER," Benson said.

Benson explained that he is concerned about state reimbursements being cut, the potential for levy limits placed upon the county and a loss in the projected wind tax revenue.

Commissioner Vern Leistico supported funding ARMER through the tax levy, saying that taking $300,000 out of reserves to pay for it was "way too much." The county already has earmarked taking $500,000 from reserves as a loan to the Southwestern Mental Health Center for construction of a new office in Worthington.

Commissioners Diane Thier and Marv Zylstra, meanwhile, both supported funding the system by taking $150,000 from reserves and funding the remaining $150,000 through the tax levy.

In the end, commissioners directed administration to develop two budget scenarios -- one funding ARMER entirely through the levy, and the other funding the system with a combination of levy and reserves.

After all of the discussion about trying to decrease the levy by removing the ARMER system from the funding mechanism, commissioners discussed employee payroll. They developed a 2012 budget that has only step increases for employees, with no money available to offer Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA). The budget does allow for a $20-per-month increase per employee for insurance benefits.

Commissioners on the negotiating committees with each of the unions won't meet again until later this month.

Ruppert told board members that if they are considering a COLA increase, it will affect the final levy.

Other changes suggested Monday included:

* Funding the Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp. at $32,000. This is a slight increase from the $31,960 paid in 2011, but $8,000 less than what WREDC had requested.

* Funding the Southwest Small Business Development Center at $2,000. This is a new appropriation, and is less than the $3,000 requested.

* Paying a $1,000 appropriation to Travel Southwest for economic development and promotion; and $1,250 for the Southwest Minnesota Arts and Humanities Council.

* Providing a 5 percent increase in appropriations to the Nobles County Fair, Nobles County Art Center and Nobles County Historical Society. The increase amounts to a total of $2,502, to be split between the three entities.

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Julie Buntjer
Julie Buntjer joined the Daily Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington and graduate of Worthington High School, then-Worthington Community College and South Dakota State University, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. At the Daily Globe, Julie covers the agricultural beat, as well as Nobles County government, watersheds, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework (cross-stitch and hardanger embroidery), reading, travel, fishing and spending time with family. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at www.farmbleat.areavoices.com.
(507) 376-7330
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