Review of 2022 prelim budget brings good news but raises questions

county commission 

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

There was some good news in the preliminary 2022 budget that county administrator Steve Larson and auditor Lori Johnson brought to the Clay County Commission Nov. 30. But in reviewing the numbers – slated for finalization Dec. 21 – commissioners raised questions about the overall projected tax increase of 4.1%, the possibility of using Covid relief funds for some budgeted items, and the county’s appropriation for the regional economic development program that several noted lags behind in its efforts on behalf of the county.

The good news: Tax revenue from the countywide levy passed by voters in 2016 to fund the Joint Law Enforcement Center and Clay County Correctional Center are running far ahead of projections. Auditor Johnson reported that 2021 collections (including estimates for November and December) show an increase of 18.13% over 2020. Though Covid affected last year’s numbers, revenue was still up 3.41%, following a 16.44% boost the previous year. In its first full year of 2018-19, the levy generated $2.7 million. If projections are correct, it will bring in a total of $3.8 million this year.

All told, the county’s proposed budget for 2022 is $43.5 million, up from $40.6 million in 2021. With funds coming from a variety of sources, Johnson said that will represent an overall increase in the county’s general tax levy of 4.3%.

Commissioners asked for several tweaks in the budget before its public hearing Dec. 14 and request for their final endorsement Dec. 21. Several focused on moving funding for specific items from the general budget to ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funding, since they qualify under guidelines for Covid relief. Among them is the county’s support of the Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo Chamber of Commerce’s “Ignite FMWF” workforce initiative.

Commissioners affirmed their support for the Chamber program. “Every organization and task force I’ve worked with identifies growing the workforce as everyone’s principle concern,” commissioner David Ebinger said. “We have to partner with the whole metropolitan area to find solutions … as well as formulate Minnesota-centric response to what happens here.”

Commissioner Jenny Mongeau, who had originally expressed concern over the county’s $25,000 contribution, said her reservations have been allayed by contributions received since then from other governmental entities on both sides of the river.

She went on to raise issue with another similar line item, however – the $110,000 annual contribution made by the county to the Greater Fargo-Moorhead Economic Development Corporation.

“This is probably an unpopular opinion,” she warned. “But I’ve said for years that I don’t think Clay County is getting a fair shake.” She noted that “Clay County projects and concerns are never mentioned – never ever” in the GFMEDC’s newsletters about its activities. “No Clay County programs are highlighted.

“$110,000 is an astronomical amount. I would like to see this item reduced. I’m tired of paying that large amount and not getting anything in return.”

Ebinger voiced agreement: “For the EDC, there needs to be more emphasis on the word ‘regional.’ That’s sensitive-speak for ‘Minnesota is not getting a lot of service.’” He noted that the regional group is often in Bismarck advocating for the community, but never speaks up in St. Paul.

Campbell countered that the EDC’s emphasis on bringing better-paying jobs to the metro area “surely benefits some people in Clay County.” He agreed, however, that Clay County representatives need to “have a heart-to-heart talk” with its leadership.

No action was taken on the issue.

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