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Cook County Gives 2019 Budget Process a Transparency Theme

Baihly Warfield
Updated: August 07, 2018 06:34 PM

GRAND MARAIS, Minn. - While a property tax increase is never popular, 2018's 17.5 percent increase in Cook County was particularly hard to swallow. 

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That is part of the reason the county board is infusing as much transparency as possible into the 2019 budget process. Next year, the increase shouldn't be so bad, they said.

"I know that citizens want to have (the levy) down, of course," Board Chair Ginny Storlie said. "We're going to work really hard on that."

It's fair to say Cook County was playing catch-up in 2018, Storlie said. But they achieved a balanced budget this year and plan on continuing that into next year. 

"We do have a reserve fund, but it's nothing that we really want to use every year. We want to start putting back in," Storlie explained. "We have a lot left. We just don't want to be using that as a backup."

A Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence report released in January 2018 listed Cook as the county with the highest "Price of Local Government."

However, Administrator Cadwell says Cook County "exports" a lot of its taxes to people who have second homes in the area as opposed to residents. Cadwell said the county is average if you consider the people who live there permanently, and he said often, percentages like that are taken out of context.

Commissioner Myron Bursheim said last year was a tough one, and there were unintended consequences that didn't match people's intentions in the past. He said the 17.5 percent increase was not an easy thing, but it was the right thing.

Bursheim said the future looks good. The 2019 budget process, which started in June, includes five citizen representatives this year. 

"I hear people saying our taxes are too high, and other people saying you must have community services," Mike Carlson, who lives just outside Grand Marais, said. 

Carlson is one of the five citizens, along with Jim Boyd, Nick Burger, Hillary Freeman and Liz Wagner.

As has been the trend lately, roads and bridges and Health and Human Services will take up large chunks of the budget. 

Storlie said Cook County property owners are looking at a "modest, single-digit increase" in their 2019 property taxes in order to keep the budget balanced, contribute to reserve funds and afford to support the county services people expect. 

"Because they made that good decision last year -- not without a controversy -- they'll be able this year to make a more modest increase related pretty much to cost of living increases," Carlson said. 

Plus, they hope adding more meetings will provide people plenty of opportunities to learn about the process, understand the need for the increase and prepare their finances. 

"We are transparent, and we're letting people know how our progress is going on," Storlie said, "and there will be opportunities for them to attend district meetings, open house meetings and all of that to be informed."

County Administrator Jeff Cadwell said there are several upcoming meetings where people can get their questions answered:

  • Aug. 14 regular board meeting: Sheriff's Office and law enforcement budgets will be reviewed
  • Aug. 21 regular board meeting: Other departmental budgets will be reviewed
  • Between Aug. 15-Sept. 15: District town hall meetings
  • Sept. 25 regular board meeting: Commissioners will set the preliminary levy and set up a 'Truth in Taxation' meeting date
  • By Dec. 31: Final levy and budget need to be approved

County Auditor Braidy Powers said the town hall meetings are a big step and will allow people to have discussions based on substance rather than emotion. 

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Baihly Warfield

Copyright 2018 WDIO-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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