County passes another freakin’ huge budget

by Richard Thomas

Before saying “see you next year,” the St. Louis County commissioners approved the 2018 budget at their Dec. 19 meeting. The nearly $398 million budget (up from $387 million in 2017) includes a 4.45 percent levy increase. (But at least down from the 8.5 increase in 2017.)

The increase helps cover additional resources to substance abuse and mental health,foster care and vulnerable adult care, stabilizing the employee health insurance fund, and hiring 12 more employees. Anyway, more details are at stlouiscountymn.gov/budget.

But worry not, say county officials: the county’s property tax base -- which has also grown 4.45 percent -- offsets the actual impact on taxpayers. So if you own a $100,000 home in Duluth, your tax will go up by just $2. The increase is a bit higher for some Northern St. Louis County residents: $3 in Ely and $6 in Hibbing. 

Why so much higher in Hibbing than in Duluth? The auditor’s office provided this explanation to The Reader: “The reason for why Hibbing is higher mainly due to how taconite credits affect taxes as rates change and how changes in settlement percentages have in the allocation of those taconite credits. Settlement percentages are calculated by taking the local tax rate of the taxing authority and dividing it by the total of all of the tax rates for that jurisdiction (county, city, school, special taxing districts). Settlement percentages are what is used to determine how much of the taconite credit a person receives is allocated to help reduce each of the County, City, School, Special Taxing District lines.” 

If you can make sense of that you’re ahead of us. Or even ahead of Commissioner Tom Rukavina, who complained at the Dec. 19 meeting that there’s not enough time for detailed discussion on the budget. “I’ve been on the board three years and I still don’t have a grasp on the budget,” he said. “Maybe I’m just a dummy.” 

The meeting started out with a congratulatory presentation on Camp Esquagama, the county-owned summer camp in Gilbert. The good news is that the 82-year old Esquagama, for the first time in its history, has received accreditation from The American Camp Association. Great as it is to celebrate something for the kids (except for those who dread the words “summer camp,” namely every kid in the world), it’s an odd thing to celebrate on budget day since the camp is a money pit.

Commissioner Keith Nelson praised camp director Steve Popowitz: “We have Steve coming in front of us, so incredibly humble.” Steve should be humble. The county just spent $2.5 million in capital improvements on the camp and its 2018 subsidy will be $197,000.

Five years ago the county board had the choice to lease the camp to the YMCA, which asked for only $485,000 for improvements and proposed to reduce and eventually eliminate the county’s subsidy. Instead the county board chose, by a 4-3 vote in January 2013, oversight by the Arrowhead Center, which had four times the price tag.

After a photo op between commissioners and camp leadership, business moved onto the 2018 budget. There was an amendment that ended up taking up most of the discussion, with the St. Louis County Historical Society asking for an additional $60,000 in funding (nearly $407,000 total for 2018). 

“It’s somewhat last minute,” acknowledged Commissioner Pat Boyle, who is one of two county board members (along with Mike Jugovich) on the Historical Society board. County Administrator Kevin Gray said the money likely would come out of the $1.8 million fund set aside for capital projects. Historical Society executive director Joanne Coombe told The Reader that “communications breakdown” is the reason for the late request, that due to scheduling conflicts, the Historical Society wasn’t able to coordinate in time with Boyle and Jugovich.

Nelson said, “Look, next year I can assure you of one thing. I will be a no vote to any increase to the Historical Society if it comes to me in December. Just count me as a no vote. And I support the Historical Society and I support the Veterans Museum, but folks, we got to get ahead of this curve ... I know where the nickels are. I don’t go as far down as the pennies but I do know where the nickels are, folks, and throughout this year and throughout this process, we have gone back to all the department heads, we have gone back to the all of the people that are part of this budgeting process and we have asked for greater accountability. When they see us as a county taking this action on the last day, that never sets well with them.”

Commissioner Frank Jewell continued the scolding, but on another matter: “I will only support something next year if you match this. And I mean by matching it, finding money from the public to match these dollars. I believe there’s great opportunity for the Historical Society to expand its foundation of support and that it will take work, and it will take outreach and new ways and that you will have to think about how to do that. I’ve talked to Joanne in the past and she said, ‘Well, we can’t do that. There aren’t people who want to do it.’ Well, I’m gonna just tell you ... there are folks out there who want to support historical issues because they see the importance of it.” 

Rukavina pointed out the Historical Society did get outside funding for the $450,000 Erie Mining History Project now in progress.
Nelson, who chairs the finance committee, praised everyone involved in the budget process: “I could not be more proud of the team that we have here in St. Louis County … We are the gold standard, folks. We are the gold standard. St. Louis County is the gold standard amongst counties … This board clearly need to understand the gold standard is St. Louis County … that gold standard team that helps all in the coming year.” And to think just last month Nelson said, “We know this county is not run right. It’s run terrible.”

The process for the 2019 budget starts in January.