Everything's preliminary at this juncture.

    The Polk County Board of Commissioners approved the preliminary 2013 levy at its meeting Tuesday after a lengthy discussion that briefly touched on several aspects of the budget. Commissioners decided on a 3 percent increase over this year's, which could go down but not up by the time the final budget and levy are approved in December.

    "Looks like we've still got some work to do on this," Commissioner Warren Affeldt said while holding up a packet of what he called very preliminary budget spreadsheets.

    County Administrators Jack Schmalenberg and Chuck Whiting agreed, noting that some departments are still developing their 2013 budgets and other unknowns, such as labor negotiations, could impact the overall budget. Whiting coming on board in late August also affected the budgeting process, said Schmalenberg, but he expressed confidence that everything will come together without having to scramble shortly before the state deadline at the end of the year.

    "We are in good shape, time wise," he said.

    Schmalenberg had suggested a 3.5 percent levy increase. The board, however, was reluctant to go that high, and instead chose an even 3 percent in hopes of staying close to that target.

    "We have these different scenarios to look at, depending on how a lot of things pan out," said Board Chair Bill Montague. "We'll make it work."

    The 2013 preliminary budget stands at around $53 million. A 3 percent levy increase, which is double that from 2011 to 2012, will generate approximately $500,000 in new revenue.

    Other 2013 budget influences cited by county officials include:
    • Health insurance premiums with Blue Cross Blue Shield are only increasing 1.6 percent next year, which Human Resources Coordinator Linsey Stadstad said is good news, considering that the increases have been in the double digit some years.
    • The workers' compensation rate actually decreased, returning $180,000 to the county coffers.
    • Minnesota's county program aid allotment is taking a significant dip, $300,000 less than last year's $1.4 million. Schmalenberg said this is making the budgeting process difficult and some tough decisions could be on the horizon for commissioners and departments.

    The consensus among commissioners was that if more funds are needed to cover extra expenses such as labor and capital projects, it would be better to dip into the county's healthy reserves in the coming year than to increase the levy too much.

    "We have to cover our expenses but we also want to keep it as low as we can," said Montague.