At a Sept. 26 special meeting of the Wright County Board, the commissioners approved its 2024 preliminary levy of $95,003,567 – an increase of 4.8 percent from 2023. The vote was 4-1 with Commissioner Mike Kaczmarek voting against approval, citing that he felt more could have been trimmed from the proposed $201.5 million budget and $95 million levy.
Board Chairman Darek Vetsch said Wright County has gone to great lengths to stabilize tax rates and capture new growth to keep levy increases from spiking like they did in 2018, when the levy increased by 17.3 percent because of years of trying to keep levies extremely low while costs and debt grew.
“This 4.8 percent levy increase has been in the making for years,” Vetsch said. “The county board has embraced the idea of forecasting and looking ahead to make sure we’re making timely investments and to make sure we can keep our tax rate as flat and level as possible. That type of thinking has put us in a position that we’re not having the levy spikes that other counties are seeing. We have created mechanisms that have allowed us to mitigate a lot of the inflationary impacts that other counties are forced to absorb.”
The 2024 budget process began in the spring with county Administration and Finance asking the board for a target number for department requests. The figure arrived at was 5.75 percent, which was reduced to 4.8 percent after several cuts were made and some hirings were held off.
“We’ve tried to get more sophisticated over the last few years in our forecasting of what the budget will be,” County Administrator Lee Kelly said. “We’ve taken information provided from our Assessor’s Office and try to get an understanding of what new construction growth is going to be so we can use that information to guide the discussion. The board set a target for departments in May, which is earlier than we have done it in the past. Through that process that number came in lower – from the target levy increase of 5.75 percent to 4.8 percent.”
While the levy increase is 4.8 percent, many homeowners will see minimal increases because of the combination of new growth in the county – Wright County remains the fastest-growing county in the state – and a shift in the amount of taxes paid by residential properties as opposed to commercial and industrial properties.
“Last year was almost unprecedented with the increase in value of residential properties,” Vetsch said. “This year, the value of commercial and industrial properties saw an increase at a larger rate or similar rate as residential properties. The result has been a shift in the tax burden that hit residential properties hard last year to more of a level playing field. With a 4.8 percent levy increase, given the shift in the tax burden, most people who didn’t see their property value increase this year will see little to no impact from the county portion of their taxes.”
What made this year’s budget process unique was that it included three new county commissioners – Tina Diedrick (District 1), Jeanne Holland (District 3) and Nadine Schoen (District 4). Vetsch said he didn’t know what to expect from three new commissioners, but was pleasantly surprised with the enthusiasm and knowledge they brought to the process.
“I appreciate having new board members that were actively involved in the process,” Vetsch said. “A lot of times new board members take on an observational role in their first budget process. These three board members were very immersed and involved and shared their knowledge and expertise to get to a collective agreement on a budget during a difficult time when a lot of taxpayers are feeling beaten down by high inflation.”
Holland said at times the work was laborious and time-consuming, but it was worth the effort to get a levy number that was almost a full percentage point below the target number set in the spring.
“At times, it was literally going line by line by line,” Holland said. “We had a lot of questions and when we would get answers to those questions, we could determine whether a request was a want or a need. When we started the budget process, we told all the departments that we had a target of a 5.75 percent increase. That was their starting point. As we did a deeper dive, we were able to make cuts that made sense. It was difficult when we brought our original levy number to our cities because a lot of them are dealing with significant increases in their city levies. That was when we started talking about getting it down to 5 percent or less.”
Holland said she worked with departments to find ways to reduce the budget and levy because the current economic hardships due to high inflation have hurt those with the tightest family budgets.
“Throughout this process, I was looking at this as to how it will impact young families and seniors,” Holland said. “I don’t want to tax seniors out of their homes and young families are struggling to make ends meet with inflation. That was what had me pushing to keep the levy as low as we could.”
While the state average for county levies is in the mid-to-high-5 percent range, Kelly said Wright County has been able to keep its levy manageable and been able to absorb much of the increase through new growth. The budget process has taken five months and he thanked all those involved that worked together to come back with a levy number the is well under the state average.
“A lot of people worked on the budget and levy to try to get a number we could be comfortable with – from the commissioners to Administration to Finance to each our county departments,” Kelly said. “It’s a long process and has been a challenge – not just for us, but a lot of counties and cities. Every year we continually work to improve how we budget and we change things to make it better.”
Due to state statute after the Sept. 26 approval, neither the budget nor levy can go up, it can only stay the same or go down.