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County’s budget, taxes up slightly

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By Joel Stevens, Associate Editor

Sometimes numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Mills County’s total budget last year was $17.1 million.

This year, that number is $27.4 million. A whopping 38 percent increase.

But, according to Mills County Auditor Carol Robertson, not all budget increases are created equal. The county’s budget may be going up but its tax asking is staying relatively stable for the 2013-2014 fiscal year.

The Mills County Board of Supervisors formally approved its 2013-2014 budget earlier this month. The $27.4 million budget appears on paper to be a substantial increase over last year’s $17.1 million budget but, as Robertson explained, the 2013-2014 figure includes the county’s $6.4 million jail bond as a “capital expense.” The new jail has yet to break ground and won’t be completed until June of next year but state law requires that figure be included in the county’s capital expenditures.

“Without that $6.4 million in there, it (the budget) wouldn’t be going up. The increase would be very small but because of that, it looks that way,” Robertson said.

The county’s tax asking is indeed going up from last year’s $7.1 million but just slightly to $7.3 million. The county has followed through on its promise to eliminate the $1 tax hike to the general basic tax levy it approved in last year’s budget round to help cover on-going courthouse renovations, bringing this year’s levy down to $3.50. However, the addition of the new debt service levy will add .48 to the total levy, which adds up to a slightly lower $9.70 tax levy per $1,000 of taxable valuation on county property for the next fiscal year.

Robertson attributes most of the county’s overall budget increase to several factors including: the addition of a county information technology (IT) person, a 10-percent increase to health insurance costs, three-percent “cost of living” wage increase and extending $500,000 of the capital expenditures related to the courthouse renovation.

“That is the vast majority of our increases,” Robertson said. “We have other departments that saw increases and some that saw decreases but those three things are the majority of where we saw increases.”

The county’s public safety and legal services, physical health and social services, roads and transportation, administration and capital improvements projects line items remain the county’s largest expenditures.

The roads and transportation department and the capital expenditures line item are the county’s largest expenditures at $5.3 and $5.6 million each, respectively. The road department budget saw an eight-percent bump from last year’s budget.

Public safety and legal services, which cover the county’s sheriff’s  department and county attorney’s office saw its budget increase by approximately one percent while physical health and social services saw its budget slashed by eight percent while mental health services saw its budget slashed by more than 50 percent.

The county’s environment and education services, which funds Mills County Conservation saw its budget go up nearly 40 percent over last year from $763,988 to $1,476, 286 this year. Robertson attributed much of this increase in funding is due to the addition of the 906 acre Glenwood Area Archeological Preserve south of Glenwood.

County administration saw a 25 percent increase in its operating budget from last year.
Taxes aren’t a popular subject and all budget decisions are difficult, but most of Mills County’s departments were “diligent” in that process, Robertson said.

“Mills county continues to grow,” she said. “People still want services. They want more and updated services and we try to make every accommodation in the world to give them what they need and run  as efficiently as we can. And we know costs are going to be up, especially when we’re putting in a jail.”

Mills County Supervisor Ron Kohn agreed. Decisions, tough ones, are always necessary.

“The sheriff’s department’s asked for an additional deputy and that’s pretty expense and we weren’t able to do it but we were able to get voting equipment we’ll pay for over three years interest free,” Kohn said. “And public health really had to work on their budget but they, and the sheriff, they have big budgets and they know what we can and can’t afford.”