County sets maximum levy increase at 12 percent

Brian Larsen

The Cook County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 to set a maximum levy increase of 12 percent for 2016. The vote came at the board’s September 22 meeting.

Commissioners Heidi Doo-Kirk, Jan Sivertson, and Ginny Storlie voted for the levy increase while commissioners Garry Gamble and Frank Moe voted against the measure.

“I understand the many needs in our county,” said Commissioner Moe following the meeting. “But I think we can do better. I hear from residents whose incomes haven’t gone up in a long time. But the cost of living continually goes up. They sometimes have to pit their money between necessities. Not luxuries. I will continue to work to find reductions until the end of December,” Moe said.

A final 2016 levy and budget must be set before December 31, 2015.

The levy is received from taxes paid by homeowners, cabin owners, businesses and landowners. St. Louis County commissioners set their levy the same as last year, a zero increase.

In 2014 commissioners raised the levy by 7 percent, and the year before the board called for a zero increase. However, the 2013 decision resulted in more than $500,000 borrowed from the county’s fund balance to keep the 2014 levy even.

Moe said he doesn’t want the fund balance tapped again unless there is a prolonged government shut down, or some sort of major, unforeseen calamity, which will necessitate the county dipping into those funds.

“If those funds go below 75 percent we could have our bond rating lowered, which will cost us money if we need to issue bonds. I think it’s time as a board that we take a hard look at our staff and services.

“Can we reduce staff? Is it possible to reduce personnel or reduce some of our services? Those are hard decisions to make, but I think we need to look at them and at least put that out there for discussion,” Moe told the News-Herald.

Reached after the meeting, Commissioner Heidi Doo-Kirk, who is the board’s chair, said, “I want the public to know that we are not dipping into our reserves or savings. The county’s health insurance went up 11 percent. Our department heads have worked their tails off for us to keep the levy as low as it is.

“A homeowner whose house is valued at $186,000—that’s the median homeowner in Cook County—would pay $83 more next year at a 12 percent levy.

“The Health and Human Services department has less than $400,000 set aside in reserves, down from $1.2 million five years ago. What if the government goes to sequestration [shuts down]? They won’t be given any money from the government but they will still be mandated to pay for services and provide care. That’s why I don’t want our fund balance used to lower the levy.

“I want the public to know that right now Cook County has $19,851,897 in unfunded road projects and we have only offered the highway department $125,000 for next year.

“What I would like to see is for us to establish a levy rate that is steady so we don’t have a zero levy one year and a 12 percent levy the next year. I would like to see the board work toward that goal,” said Doo-Kirk.

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2015-09-26 digital edition

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