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When local governments pass preliminary levies in September, it is often noted that while state statute doesn't allow the final levy to be higher, it could be lower. But it rarely happens.

An exception came Dec. 15. The McLeod County Board had previously discussed a 5% levy increase for 2021. However, by using federal COVID-19 relief funds, board members unanimously agreed to lower the increase to 2.5%, which brings the levy from $24.54 million to about $25.15 million, and adds about $70 to the county tax portion on a $200,000 residential property.

Though the majority of CARES funds went to local businesses, organizations and schools, the county did set aside $600,000 to be used this year, and another $600,000 to be used the following year.

"I think it's important we end with a balanced budget so we're not kicking it into next year." said Board Member Paul Wright.

Over the past several years, levy increases have varied dramatically, ranging from about 3% to 8.5%, including four years with no change, and even a decrease of 3.8% in 2008.

Wright said the county can't control state mandates and expenses brought on from addressing public health and safety needs — such as inpatient adult mental health care and out-of-home placement for children — that make up a significant share of the budget. But he believes the county has reached a point where it can maintain about a 3% increase each year going forward.

"We've finally fixed the rollercoaster," he said.

"For me, I was interested in protecting our reserves," said Board Vice Chair Doug Krueger. "For today I'm very confident. ... We'll have to see what the future brings."

Another major factor in lowering the levy is a local option sales tax the County Board approved in 2019 to address a gap in road maintenance funding. The county is set to receive $2.3 million this year, more than the $1.9 million expected.