Cook County Connections: What to Expect from the County Budget ProcessJun 10, 2022 09:08AM ● By Laura Durenberger
Image: Boreal Community Media files
By: Braidy Powers, Cook County Auditor-Treasurer - Cook County, Minnesota - June 10, 2022
Planning for the fiscal year (FY) 2023 County budget began in April again this year — two months earlier than has been our usual practice. The reasons for the early start are to give departments more time to fit budget planning into their schedules, to give county administration more time to discuss changes with departments, and more time for the county board to review and react to requests prior to the state deadline for proposed levies on September 30, 2022.
The Cook County Board of Commissioners approved the new 2023 budget calendar on April 12. Highlights of the calendar are: a deadline of June 30 for final budget requests, budget presentations to the county board starting July 26, approval of the proposed county budget and levy on September 13, mailing of Truth In Taxation statements to taxpayers on November 11, and the approval of the final county budget and levy on December 13. Other entities making budget requests, including the Cook County and Schroeder historical societies and Soil and Water Conservation District, have the same deadline. The only exceptions are the unorganized fire districts which have until August 19 to submit their budgets.
The County has fielded many inquiries from residents in recent weeks regarding the property valuation notices that were sent out in April. Many have expressed concern that their taxes would go up proportionally to their property values, and some have even suggested that the valuation increases are a scheme to increase tax collections. This is not true because the amount of tax revenue the County collects is not determined by property values. The total amount of taxes that the County collects is determined by only one thing: the County levy, which is set by the County Board every December. It does not matter how high or low property values are; the County will only collect the dollar amount that the Board approves. That said, the value of your property as a percentage of the combined value of all the properties in the County does have an impact on what your tax payment will be. However, in a situation where everyone’s property values are going up, most people will not see a significant increase in their tax bills.
Personnel costs always represent the largest share of the County’s operating budget. Like employers across the country, the County has seen significant staff turnover. Low unemployment rates have driven up wages, and with the excellent broadband we have here, the County is losing staff to employers from outside the County who can offer fully remote positions at higher pay. As it did five years ago, Cook County is conducting a compensation study to see where it stands in comparison to other employers. While the results won’t be available until later this summer, there is a good chance that changes to the County’s pay scales will be needed. This could put upward pressure on the County levy. Any changes to health insurance premiums will also be a factor in determining next year’s staffing costs. It is important for the County to offer competitive pay and benefits because turnover is enormously expensive and increases the costs of providing services. If personnel costs go up for 2023, the County is in a good position to mitigate the impact on next year’s levy. The cash balances in the general, Public Health and Human Services, and Highway Department funds are all healthy, and as it has done before, the County Board could elect to use these reserves to offset increased costs.
The high rate of inflation that the US has experienced over the last year is another factor that will impact the FY 2023 budget. The costs of goods and services across all sectors of the economy have gone up, and the County is seeing those increases in the equipment and supplies it must purchase to carry out the organization’s work. The interest rate hikes that the Federal Reserve has begun implementing are expected to have a cooling effect on inflation. Despite the volatility in the prices of consumer goods and the stock market, Cook County’s economy has continued to be strong. Lodging and sales tax collections continue to trend higher. This provides something of a hedge against inflation. Surpluses in the state budget will also bring a modest amount of additional local program aid to counties across Minnesota.
Every year, the County receives from the federal government a payment to compensate for our inability to collect property taxes on land that is part of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). Prior to 2019, that payment amounted to almost $2 million, which was used to offset the county levy. The every-10-year-required appraisal, last done in 2019, cut that payment by a third. But the cut was temporarily delayed when the U.S. Forest Service agreed to reappraise those lands. The County recently learned that a new reappraisal was only slightly higher than the 2019 appraisal, meaning that the County will continue to receive a lower payment from the federal government. The cut is retroactive to the 2020 and 2021 payments, with repayment of the difference required, and the lower payments will continue through 2029.
A continuing budget issue is our aging infrastructure. Building repair and maintenance costs have risen in recent years and we have increased the building and capital levies to meet those needs. One goal is to stabilize current costs by building a reserve that will handle projected large repairs. Another goal is to be able to project when those large repairs will occur.
The County has a Budget and Facilities Advisory Committee that meets monthly and provides resident feedback on County budget policies and expenditures. The committee gives us community perspective on the issues affecting the county budget. It is one way that citizens can provide feedback on County budget priorities and spending. Residents can also reach out to their County Commissioner or the office of the County Administrator if they have questions and concerns about the budget.
The general fund presentation is planned for July 26. The Sheriff and Highway departments presentations are scheduled for the week of July 26 – August 5. Public Health and Human Services will present at the regular monthly PHHS Board meeting on July 19. This earlier schedule allows an extra two weeks for town hall meetings if the board determines they are necessary. It also gives time for follow-up meetings with departments and updating the budget for any adjustments that are needed prior to adopting the proposed levy in September.
We have also tightened the dates for mailing the truth-In-taxation statements. State law allows a two-week period for mailing statements, but we have set our goal now to mail on the earliest date allowed.
And finally, as required by statute, the truth in taxation meeting must be held during the period between late November and the end of December and must be held prior to approving the final budget and levy. The county board must choose the date of that public hearing at the meeting in September when they approve the proposed levy. We expect to choose a date early in December and have planned for the final budget and levy to be approved on December 13.
County Connections is a column on timely topics and service information from your Cook County government. Cook County – Supporting Community Through Quality Public Service.