Guest Column: County should fund core services, cut unmandated

Published 9:48 pm Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Guest Column by Dan Belshan

Dan Belshan


While campaigning for re-election recently, I’ve spoken to a number of constituents who are concerned about the county and watershed levying more taxes in addition to the already substantial tax burden.

Email newsletter signup

Taxes are too high. My solutions include funding core services and cutting unmandated services.  We need to hold the line, get leaner and request many competitive bids on purchases.

Here are the problems and my remedies in italics.

• Shrinking population: According to the U. S. Census Bureau estimate as of July 2017, the Freeborn County population was 30,535, which is below the 1940 census. Losing birthing services at the hospital doesn’t help. We need children to grow our population and good jobs to grow our tax base.

• Property taxes too high: In 1940, the average price of Freeborn County farmland and buildings was $68/acre. Now, taxes on non-homestead land in Freeborn County are $62.21/acre. My grandparents would turn in their graves. We need to levy less taxes.

• Poor road maintenance: In the last few years, in spite of a county yearly wheelage tax of $10 per vehicle, which has raised about $300,000 per year for road repairs; an added county sales tax of .5 percent for road improvements, which raises about $1.6 million per year; and raising the county engineer’s highway budget, Freeborn County roads are not in good shape. We need to crack fill, chip-seal and use quality gravel to better maintain and preserve roads. If we don’t maintain, it will cost more in the future.

• County spending in wrong areas: This September, our staff said the county has cut $800,000 in expenses since last year. I think that’s great!  But then they recommended the commissioners spend $400,000 to adjust staff wages. (Mower County did a similar wage adjustment which is costing $500,000 to $600,000 yearly, and their proposed levy rose to 9.7 percent, mostly due to wage increases.) We should save the $400,000, stay with the normal cost of living and step raises county employees already receive each year, and not implement higher wage adjustments. Staff also proposed paying $100,000 toward purchase of land when the new Albert Lea fire station is built next to the law enforcement center. No other city or township gets a penny from the county toward the fire station footprint, and we would lose the property taxes from those locations. We should save the $100,000.

• Watershed out of control: Everybody wants clean water, and a watershed was supposed to clean Albert Lea Lake. Then, the taxing district expanded to include all waters into the Shell Rock River and became the Shell Rock River Watershed District. The watershed district gets the entire .5 percent Albert Lea sales tax money, plus levies from property taxes of $250,000, the maximum allowed by law, each year just for administration. According to the state auditor, the district bought a dredge illegally and gave wage bonuses illegally. Then they wrote a petition for Freeborn County to sign and give back to them, which allows the district to levy another $160,000 per year in property taxes. This August, they raised their wages between 5 to 13 percent. Non-elected watershed boards should not be allowed to levy taxes.

• Business in our county: In recent years we have lost jobs from businesses closing, which means lost tax revenue.  We don’t have the industry that Steele and Rice counties have. We don’t have a Fortune 500 company with a foundation, which contributes to the community that Austin and Mower County have. Here’s a comparison of county farm driveway permit fees: Blue Earth County, $0; Waseca County, $0; Mower County, $20; Dodge County, $75; Faribault County, $100; Steele County, $100; and Freeborn County, $200. We need to make it easier to do business here. We don’t need huge permit fees, prohibitive regulations, a big bureaucracy and a hassle when a new business shows interest in this area or a current business expands.   

I see a better future for the finances of Freeborn County only if we learn to live within our budget and are very careful with your tax dollars. Every Freeborn County family has had to tighten their belts and make cuts to their budgets over the years. As District 2 commissioner, I believe the county board must do the same. I’d like a 1 percent cut to all county departments and also cut non-beneficial, unmandated services, and use those dollars for county core services. I will persist in supporting taxpayers, work to save tax dollars and continue to be your voice on the county board.

Dan Belshan is the Freeborn County District 2 commissioner seeking re-election.