Though the rate of levy increase he proposed last month had been cut nearly in half, County Administrator Paul Virnig received a similar message from the Meeker County Board Sept. 1.

Find more reductions.

“Every year our budget goes up,” Commissioner Beth Oberg said. “There’s got to be a way we can cut more spending. I would sure like to see them take another look and shave some more off.”

Virnig’s first presentation of the 2021 budget and levy suggested a 5.5 percent levy increase over 2020. By the next meeting, through meeting with department heads and the budget committee, the proposed levy was reduced to 2.9 percent, or about $430,000 more than the 2020 levy.

The 2021 budget is expected to be slightly more than $35 million, which is a $1.4 million increase (4.3 percent) over 2020.

Some of the proposed levy reduction came from reducing the capital projects levy and reducing the fund balance in the revenue fund, Virnig said, calling it “a quick fix” to come in with a levy under 3 percent.

Oberg and Commissioner Mike Housman challenged Virnig to find even more savings.

“How much money would we have to shave off to get to 2 percent (levy increase),” Oberg said.

Virnig said it would take about another $100,000 in cuts.

Oberg said her concern is that with the financial challenges that the coronavirus pandemic has created, county residents might struggle with their tax bills.

“We have landlords not collecting rent, and they haven’t collected rent in months … but when property tax comes, we are going to want them to pay it,” Oberg said.

Housman said he worried that some of the reductions in levy were not real reductions, but shifting of money.

“I’m not really supportive of doing accounting gimmicks,” he said. “I kind of feel like I’m in St. Paul right now. If we don’t trim actual expenditures, in 2022 the same conversations will be going on (about) how do we not have a 5 percent levy increase?”

Oberg suggested that a harder look be taken at capital expenditures. She pointed to a request by Sheriff Brian Cruze earlier in the board meeting to purchase four new squad cars, during which she questioned if the department could get by with fewer than four new cars. She also said that if staffing is a major factor in rising costs, as Virnig suggested earlier in the discussion, that when a retirement happens, the questions sould be asked about whether the positions should be filled.

“The cost of government is outpacing everything,” Housman said. “Government is consuming a larger and larger part of people’s paychecks.”

Virnig said he would meet again with the budget committee, and he suggested the County Board meet with them, as well, possibly during a work session, to explore other areas where expenses might be reduced.

The county has until Sept. 30 to set its 2021 levy. Once set, the levy can be reduced, but it cannot be increased.