High attendance at Stevens County Truth in Taxation hearing Monday
MORRIS - About 20 county residents used the Stevens County Truth in Taxation hearing on Monday night to grill the Board of Commissioners and county employees about budget items both big and small.
At a meeting before the TNT hearing, the board of commissioners passed their 2012 budget. The $12.3 million dollar budget has an increase in expenditures of about 3.5 percent (around $153,000, not including the increased debt service payments for the courthouse remodel project), and an overall levy increase of 7.22 percent.
One of the first questions raised was about the cost of the ongoing remodeling project in the courthouse. Facilities and Maintenance Manager Nick Young said the current project - completing an office for the county attorney in the courthouse - would come to about $20,000.
When the courthouse was built, then-County Attorney Charles Glasrud worked from a private office where he also ran a part-time private practice. The new county attorney, Aaron Jordan, does not have an outside office and will need to work from the courthouse, explained Commissioner Ron Staples.
"In order to save renting office space for him to be in, we've decided over the number of years it's going to be cheaper for us to house him here in the courthouse," said Staples.
Other questions that came before the board included gravel road maintenance and work quality, the cost of outside attorney fees for union negotiations and the number of prisoners being jailed for the country.
However, the general feeling that emerged from the meeting was that government spending continues to increase unnecessarily and that citizens don't feel connected to the process.
"Going forward with what it costs to run stuff, have we looked at everything?" said one resident. "Where's it all going to stop? ... It's just crazy to me that every year it's more and more and more and more. I think you could go through the room and talk to a bunch of people that are working with less and less."
"For as many people, in my opinion, that are in this room that could say 'We should cut and do less,' we could probably get that many, when you cut and do less, that say 'I don't want you to do less,'" said County Coordinator Giese. "It's very much a balancing act of what's the right level."
Commissioner Jeanne Ennen provided an example of county cost-savings when it comes to hiring personnel (an expense that makes up about 46 percent of county spending).
"When there's been an opportunity throughout this past year to look at, when someone retires or moves or whatever, to see if we really need to fill that position ... or if we can combine with another county to fill that position," said Ennen.
Resident Don Reicosky asked the board whether there was interest in developing a better way of gathering citizen input during the budget process.
"I look at you guys as my employees because I'm a taxpayer, and I like to think I'd have a little bit of input into it," said Reicosky. "I'm wondering if there's some mechanism by which you could get feedback from the community to help you make some of these decisions so that you just don't have to sit and listen to people gripe at you on one day out of the year."
"Simply put, I have a telephone and I'll talk to anybody any time," said Commissioner Phil Gausman. "All you have to do is call me. I get zero calls, basically, unless somebody is unhappy. It'sdbe nice if you called if you had some constructive ideas. I would accept them just as readily as I accept criticism."
"There is a process in place," added Giese. "We start this at public meetings that are posted in the same place and in the same papers every month, and until this Truth in Taxation period ... I've never in my 10 years seen a body at this. This is good and welcome, but there are processes to get on the agenda. ... If you want to be involved with input as a group of citizens, that's a good place to start."
"We've just been through that the last couple of years, when the county board refused to call a public meeting." said resident Charlie Berg. "No, we've been through it with a board that was deaf. That's probably why there are so many of us here."