The County Line: What do Polk County commissioners do?

Polk County Commissioner Warren Strandell

People have often asked me how often the County Board meets each month and further what we as commissioners do at all these meetings.

Well, the board meets three times a month — on the first, third and fourth Tuesdays. County commissions have definite responsibilities — much like city councils, state legislatures, and congress — to provide government services. These include law enforcement, highway maintenance, keeping property records, providing social services, environmental services, health services and all the other things mandated by law. In reality, counties are an extension of the state government… legislators pass the laws, and we carry them out.

Counties have to prepare and send out the property tax bills that in addition to the county portion include the taxes to be collected for cities, school districts, townships, watershed districts, special taxing districts, and even for the State of Minnesota, which if you didn’t know gets a good chunk of your property taxes.

Because of its role in preparing and sending out property tax bills, counties often get blamed for increases in the tax bill even though they haven’t been the biggest contributor to the problem. As for Polk County, we board members and the Administrator Chuck Whiting have made it a practice of limiting county levy increases to that of about inflation, or about three percent. Afterall, costs go up. That’s just the way it is. You have to deal with that while also maintaining buildings, equipment, highways, and a good workforce.

Over the past 10 years and more, we’ve held our levy increases to about three percent (actually 2.70 percent). In that time there have been annual additions of some $20 to $25 million of new valuation (from new construction and property revaluation) to the county’s total tax base, which now totals some of $5.7 billion. With the benefit of these valuation increases, the “county” portion of my tax bill has generally not gone up much at all in that time. If the valuation of your property(s) didn’t change, the same was likely true for you. That’s the county portion of your bill.

For the sake of conversation about what commissioners do, I will “report” on some of the subjects that were a part of the agenda of a recent meeting (July 20). The thoughts and comments that follow are not in a “journalistic” or news form but just capture some my thoughts as the day proceeded.

Highway — On a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Mark Holy in opposition for some very good reasons, the board approved participating in a work order to design and construct a round-about at the intersection of State Highway 75 and CSAH 21. I’m not a big proponent of round-abouts but with its history of crashes, something just has to be done at that intersection and a round-about (with the Minnesota Department of Transportation strongly recommending that option … and in this case with the state and federal governments paying for almost 90 percent of the projected $2-plus million cost), I had to vote to proceed with that plan. The county portion of the cost will be about $200,000 and will come from existing revenues, not a tax increase. The project will include relocating the Highway 75 roadway to the west to create a greater space between the round-about and the railroad tracks. Construction is planned next year.

County Budget — Department heads are in the process of finalizing their 2022 budget requests. After his review, Administrator Whiting will present them to the County Board. As has been the practice, a preliminary levy increase will likely be limited to five percent this fall. The final levy that will be approved in December will again be in that three percent area.

Salary negotiations — Negotiations for new three-year wage agreements with eight different organized employee groups will soon begin.

Fraud Prevention — In his report Regional Fraud Prevention Specialist Marc Cardinal noted that of the 63 and 58 cases he worked in Polk County during the past two fiscal years, respectively, almost all involved the sale or unauthorized use of EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) card benefits that are used in the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assisted Program, formerly Food Stamps) food program. Cardinal said the illegal sale of EBT card benefits often occur right within a grocery store and that the participants have signals for the ways that they connect. The next time you are in the store you might watch for that.

A high number of valuations also involved medical issues and social service funding violations. For the year, the savings in Polk County amounted to $172, 084 in fiscal year July 1, 2019-June 30, 2020 and $172,084 in fiscal year July 1, 2020-June 30, 2021. For the region, Cardinal, who covers eight counties in northwestern Minnesota, the savings totaled $674,340 and $527,847 in the two fiscal years.

Law enforcement — Sheriff James Tadman, in answer to a question about body cameras, stated that all deputies have and wear body cameras and that officers initiate them as situations occur. Deputy vehicles, he said, have both front and back-mounted cameras.

While nothing of significance has occurred in Polk County, deputies have assisted other counties at several Line 3 protest sites.

American Relief Program — Administrator Whiting reported that how the county might be able to use up to $6.2 million in American Relief Program funding is not yet clear. That’s a lot of money, he said, noting that the recovery of $1.2 million from “lost revenue” was pretty certain. Other priority areas would likely include water projects and broadband development but there isn’t a lot of clarity beyond that. The saving grace, he said, is that “We’ve got until December of 2024 to figure things out.”

So, that’s some of what came about at the July 20 meeting. Some things were decided and some things will move on to be a part of future agendas. There is never be a lack of issues. We’ll continue to meet three times a month to try to come up with some answers.

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 of Commissioners.