WORTHINGTON — Economic ramifications of the COVID-19 global pandemic led Nobles County commissioners during a Tuesday morning work session to hone in on a potential 0% levy increase in 2021 and consider a directive to county staff that each and every new request or replacement position will be evaluated. The latter could be instituted for the remainder of this year.
More discussion and a formal decision is expected with the board meets in regular session next Tuesday.
Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson said this is a union negotiation year, so there is no Cost Of Living Adjustment (COLA) in place for employees in 2021. He said he’s heard some counties may offer the same COLA as what was given in 2020. Nobles County gave a 2.75% pay increase to its employees this year. Meanwhile, step increases are anticipated to have a .6% impact on the levy.
“We know our revenues are down significantly,” Johnson told commissioners.
“We also need to be very aware of the financial impact COVID has had on our taxpayers,” added board chairman Justin Ahlers. “We have got to hold this budget this year — we cannot go up on the levy.”
Commissioner Matt Widboom urged fellow board members to be direct in their decision.
“The more clear we can be now, the more fair it will be to staff,” he said.
Among the ideas mentioned Tuesday were purchasing no new equipment, hiring no new staff and reviewing every request to replace a position being vacated.
“All I hear is they’re overworked and underpaid,” said Commissioner Bob Demuth Jr. “I can’t imagine a reduction in staff.”
Ahlers suggested asking department heads to identify where cuts can be made in their department.
Local option sales tax hearing may be rescheduled
A public hearing to gather comment on the possibility of enacting a local option sales tax to fund road improvements is likely to be rescheduled in August. The initial hearing, which was to take place in March, was cancelled due to COVID-19 and a statewide stay-at-home order.
“Is now the time to be doing this?” asked Ahlers of the new tax.
“I’m not sure the timing is right,” replied Commissioner Gene Metz. “We could maybe hold the public hearing and see what the pulse is.”
Nobles County Public Works Director Stephen Schnieder said a public hearing is required if the county wants to pursue the local option sales tax, but he didn’t know of any timeline in which the tax had to be implemented. At minimum, it takes 90 days from the time the board makes a decision until the tax can begin being collected, he shared.
“Personally, I support moving on and moving forward with (the hearing),” said Widboom. “There’s obviously a lot of unknown as to how we recover.
"The projection provided to us was not as bleak as it could have been. Local resident impact on a tax like this is pretty minimal, per capita-wise, compared to cost savings or interest rates. All no action does is delay improving roads that continue to get behind.”
Commissioner Donald Linssen agreed.
“We’re so far behind the 8-ball right now that delaying it more, in essence, is going to cost us money," he said. “I don’t want to put any new burden on people, but I don’t think this is going to be the difference between somebody eating or not."
Commissioners are expected to further discuss plans for a public hearing at their Tuesday meeting.
Oxford-Diagonal roundabout delayed
Another impact from COVID-19 is a delay in the construction of a roundabout at the intersection of Oxford Street and Diagonal Road in Worthington.
The Worthington City Council has already given formal support for the project, but due to COVID, the city has requested to move its Oxford Street reconstruction project to a later year. The city traded funding with another city, and now anticipates moving its project to 2023.
Nobles County had the roundabout budgeted for 2022, but had always planned to coordinate the work on the city’s timeline.