The Mille Lacs County Board of Commissioners has a lot to contend with, as they squeeze in the final preliminary levy before the Sept. 28 deadline.
At their regular meeting on Sept. 20, commissioners unanimously voted to delay setting the preliminary levy until a special meeting Tuesday, Sept. 27. They are seeking to keep the levy below 10 percent, something that is easier said than done.
Based on board budget talks from the Sept. 13 special meeting, County Administrator Dillon Hayes presented the preliminary levy of $22,394,765.50, which is a 7.5 percent levy increase over 2022, equating to a tax rate decrease of approximately 9.69 percent. Hayes said more direction is needed from the board in order to actually make about $50,000-worth of cuts that would result in that number.
Several matters are pressing on the board, which still have not been addressed. First, repair of county roads. Commissioners have expressed a desire to repair county roads, but they need to take time to develop a plan, one that includes funding plans and a schedule of what gets repaired when. Second, staffing requests and staffing shortages populate many departments’ requests.
Chair Genny Reynolds reviewed the options the commissioners have to set the preliminary levy. The first option was stated as holding a special meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 27 to set the preliminary levy before the Sept. 28 deadline. The second option is to raise the preliminary levy (without the $50,000 in cuts), which would be an increase of about 11.25 percent over 2022. The board then could work from that number to whittle it down for the final budget in December.
As a third option, they could set the preliminary levy at the 7.5 percent increase and authorize Hayes to make the cuts necessary to reach that number.
Hayes then presented a fourth option: “defer posting at this time,” and then take the time between now and December to review and evaluate recommended cuts.
Commissioner Phil Peterson made the motion for the second option – to raise the levy. “We always can cut, which we will be doing,” he said. His motion failed to pass, as no one raised a second.
Commissioner Roger Tellinghuisen then made the motion to set a special meeting for Tuesday, Sept. 27, which passed unanimously.
What’s on the chopping block?
After commissioners made the motion to delay setting the preliminary budget, an unusual agenda item came into focus: “Consider rescinding prior motions.”
This agenda item required background. On Aug. 16, the board approved the posting and recruitment of a deputy sheriff vacancy in the sheriff’s office. Since that time, the department received notice that an investigator will be retiring. So on Sept. 13, the board approved the motion for the sheriff’s office to hire two deputy sheriff positions from the pool of applicants and an internal filing of the investigator position.
Because the board did not approve the preliminary levy, they had to reconsider those two motions to keep the Mille Lacs Sheriff’s Department staffed. The board allowed Chief Deputy Kyle Burton, who was present at the meeting, to address them.
“I think the board should be cautious about cutting deputies,” he said. “We need the staff.”
He cited statistics from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which found Mille Lacs County to be the third most violent county in Minnesota, behind Hennepin and Ramsey Counties. He added, “I don’t think you’ll find this community has an appetite for cutting law enforcement.”
Burton also pointed out that the department reduced from five investigators to four within the last few years, after another investigator had retired. The department made the decision to not hire for that position again, as it wasn’t seen as a necessary investment. But reducing to three? “I just can’t justify it.” Investigators have been helping road deputies when necessary on top of their own work, and, despite that, the overtime for road deputies is high.
Hayes pointed out that the board has raised their funding in the sheriff’s department over the past several years, and yet Burton cited these alarming statistics. Can he show them the efficacy of their public safety investment? Burton agreed to compile data for the board to go over.
As a result, no action was taken on rescinding the prior motions. Peterson moved to table the discussion until Sept. 27, which the commissioners unanimously agreed to.
Next on the agenda, the commissioners voted unanimously to post for a vacant social worker position after a resignation.
Is there a staff shortage issue?
Back in August, Commissioner Tim Wilhelm asked Personnel Director Karly Fetters if she’s noticing a trend of posting for vacant positions. At the time, she replied, “I don’t know.” Since that time, nearly every meeting has had an agenda item regarding personnel recruitment for various positions.
At the Aug. 16 regular board meeting, as commissioners discussed the preliminary budget, Commissioner Dave Oslin inquired to County Administrator Dillon Hayes if the staff requests made by department heads were required or not. Hayes stated those staff requests were a “pretty small list.”
What Hayes saw as a bigger issue is the overtime – it’s usually not budgeted for, and, in general, the overtime policy is not being followed.
On Sept. 13, at a special board meeting, Hayes presented the board with a staffing ratio sheet compiled by another county, which compares staffing per 1,000 of the population in all 87 Minnesota counties. On it, Hayes pointed out that for the 27,281 residents of Mille Lacs County in 2022, there are 8.72 employees for every 1,000 people. The median, according to the chart, is 9.24. Hayes said, “We are staffing appropriately.”
And yet, the staff requests still need to be dealt with. There are requests in the county attorney’s office, the Soil Water and Conservation District, 4-H Extension, the Community Service and Veterans’ Office, not to mention staffing deficits in the sheriff’s department and public works and others, which are not requests so much as vacancies that have not been filled.