Tuesday, Dec. 3, there was a public levy and budget hearing at the commissioners’ meeting room in Fergus Falls. I was running late, because the roads were slick, and I thought sure I would be standing in the back of the room for the meeting. Unfortunately that was not the case, as only eight or nine of We the People attended this meeting. I believed there would be more interest in the public wanting to know what we are spending our ever-increasing property taxes on. Also attending were the commissioners and many division directors and department heads. This meeting covered the 2020 budget and tax levy. This was not the meeting where people appeal their estimated market value, taxable market value, and property classification.
The slide show presented by the county auditor was interesting, and thorough. As he pointed out, a good deal of the county’s budget expenses are state and federally mandated, to fund different programs and services. The county has no choice in this, and from what I understand, some of them are funded by the state and federal governments, and some of the mandates must be funded by the county. These are called unfunded mandates. In other words, a state or federal statute or regulation forces the county to comply, without providing funding to fulfill those requirements.
Otter Tail County has a good mix of agricultural, residential, seasonal, and commercial/industrial properties, which make up the tax base. The tax levy discussed for 2020 is $43.8 million, a 5.45% increase from 2019. The county’s debt, at the end of this year, will be $47.9 million. I have looked this up previously, and most of the debt is for buildings, including the government services building, courthouse and jail improvements, public works garage, and Prairie Lake Municipal/Solid Waste Authority.
To prepare for this meeting, I decided to read through the state auditor’s audit of Otter Tail County’s books for 2018, which is the latest available. I found several things that concerned me. Nothing to do with our county auditor’s work, but having to do with different departments that are not following federal mandates. Of these, I was most concerned with the section which starts on Page 231 of the audit, titled “Previously Reported Items Not Resolved.” Because they were previously reported, I then requested the 2017 audit, to see if I could track just how far back these unresolved issues went. Of these unresolved issues, my primary concern was with the Department of Human Services’ Medical Assistance program. The auditor found the following in a 40-case test sample: assets not verified or incorrectly inputted in six cases. Income not verified, or incorrectly inputted in two cases. Several instances of other types of errors. That’s a lot of errors in a sample of 40 cases. If the department could follow a simple checklist, these errors should not be happening. The audit says the effect of these errors increases the risk that a program participant will receive benefits when they are not eligible. Is it possible that these errors will result in a bill to our county from the federal government, like the bill Minnesota got from them for Department of Human Services errors? In one instance, there was no judicial determination, and no voluntary placement agreement for foster care, but the children were removed from their home. Incredible! Until that paperwork was in place, that should never have happened! These issues are now almost three years old. The head of the department has stated she will look into this, and make sure corrective measures have been taken, and report back to us at a future commissioners’ meeting. What I say about that is: someone slipped up. Who was responsible for reading the corrective actions required by the county’s audit, almost a year ago now, which pointed out they were unresolved from the previous year as well, and did not take those corrective measures?
There were not many questions by the public at the end of the meeting, and the commissioners and department heads stayed after it was adjourned to answer any further questions in person. The final budget and levy certification for 2020 will be completed yet in December.
Marcia Huddleston is deputy chair of the Republic Party of Otter Tail County.