If you’re tempted to read this, get ready for some deep stuff because what follows is my version of County Finance Philosophy 101:
First rule, additional spending, whether it is for regular operations or some new program or service, requires finding additional revenue. If you want to spend, you better be ready to tax.
Second, “reserves” are not to be used to balance budgets. This doesn’t solve a thing. It just pushes the ball down the road; the problem is still there the next year. Using reserves for this purpose is a recipe for disaster.
Reserves are for emergencies and/or major capital projects… “one-time” expenses as the result of a fire or weather disaster or for a remodeling project, a new roof, even a new building. Financial shortfalls don’t qualify as emergencies; they are to be dealt with by adjusting revenues and expenses.
This is the time of year when county boards — along with city councils, school boards, town boards, watershed boards, etc. — go through the process of developing operating budgets for the next year.
It is a painful and taxing (no pun intended) process. As an elected county official, you represent your constituents in determining the extent of the services that will be provided and the property taxes that will have to be collected to pay for them. At the same time, county operations and infrastructure must be maintained to keep up with the needs and the times.
In Polk County, the board follows a practice of meeting with each of the department heads to go over their projected budgets and agendas. Together, we go over virtually every line item in the budget proposal.
Despite this scrutiny, the need for more tax money seems to be a given in almost every case. Like it or not, the cost of doing business for government keeps going up and up, just like it does for all of us. How much it goes up and for what is the question that we try to answer. Efficiency is the focal point of everything.
Over the years, I believe that a pretty good level of trust has been built up between the county board, the department heads and staff. There was a time when — now, this is my opinion — some of the different budget proposals had a bit of fluff in them. This was intended to be the cushion that would be there to cover unanticipated costs.
In some cases, it was thought — again my opinion — that as the year neared an end and there was money left in the budget, an opportunity was created to make a few expenditures beyond that were in the budget.
Page 2 of 2 - To counteract this practice, the county board put out the word that it wanted to see much tighter budgeting and that, in the event of unforeseen expenses, it could be counted on to address them. As a result, the budgeting process has become more realistic. There is the assurance, a trust if you will, that we are all in this together.
While there probably is no end to this discussion, a meaningful conclusion (for now) requires attention to two considerations.
One is that negotiations are currently underway to develop new wage contracts with all employee groups. The current three-year contracts, which expire at the end of the year, didn’t include a cost of living pay increase in the first two years. In the third year, there was a one-time cash payment that averaged about a 2 percent salary hike. The county made increases in the benefits package in all three years to cover health insurance costs.
With that history, some adjustments in salaries are in order. How much is the question. Two percent over three years wasn’t a lot… even in those tough times.
The second point is the question about how any increase in spending for county government will be funded. That’s, of course, through property taxes. For virtually every tax classification other than “tillable agricultural lands,” it won’t be a significant increase. Remember, that is as it regards the “county portion” of the tax bill. Cities, school districts and other local governmental bodies have different situations.
As buyers of tillable ag lands have run up the prices paid, the assessed valuations in that segment of real estate have increased. The result has been a tax shift in which landowners are picking up a larger share of the burden. By paying those higher prices, landowners are basically doing it to themselves as it regards their tax bills. However, as long as times on the farm are good, farmers aren’t heard complaining a whole lot.
Note — Tillable ag lands now account for 51.5 percent of the total valuation of property in the county. By comparison, “residential” property owners account for 27.6 percent of the $3.735 billion tax base (billion is correct).
It won’t be any fun for us non-farmers if and when the situation reverses.
Thoughts expressed in this column are those of the author and are not necessarily a reflection of the opinions of the other members of the Polk County Board.