Houston County Board members settled on a 1 percent levy increase for 2018 after extended debate at its Tuesday meeting. The move also leaves the budget with a $133,381 surplus for the coming year.

Concerned over the rising costs of operating and labor, Commissioner Teresa Walter initially proposed a 2 percent levy increase, but her motion died because of a lack of a second. Commissioner Justin Zmyewski countered with a zero increase, citing potential hardships that an increase would have on a county whose mean family income already ranks lower than the state average.

Zmyewski also pointed out that even with a zero increase, the budget would still maintain an almost $4,000 surplus. Walter responded that, “we can’t go to zero, there will be no working room at all.” She also said that municipalities who don’t increase often have to, “play catch-up in future years.”

Zmyewski’s motion also died for lack of a second.

Commissioner Scott Connor then split the difference, suggesting a 1 percent increase. His proposal was seconded and passed by a 4-to-1 margin. The budget was set at $13.1 million.

Vacant post stirs debate

With a vacant position in the auditor’s office and the County Board wondering whether or not to fill it, one thing the Board did find out is that there was no shortage of suggestions.

Caledonia City Administrator Adam Swann set the tone during public comments, initially praising the quality and quantity of work done in the auditor’s office. But he expressed concern that auditor Char Meiners was the only one familiar with the inner workings of the systems. Swann implied that her absence would create a hardship.

“If you have no one who knows what they’re doing, we’re all at risk,” said Swann. “Especially when it comes to core functions like elections and taxes. It takes a team effort.”

Leading off the Board’s response during the discussion, Commissioner Fred Arnold indicated that any time a vacancy occurred, the Board considers ways to distribute the work and avoid replacement. “We’re not trying to do a nasty number on the city of Caledonia or the townships,” he said. “Just find a way to get more efficient.

“Elections aren’t a weekly occurrence so we have to balance that.”

Meiners responded with an election task list of her own ranging from preparation to follow-up work.

“You have no idea what elections involve,” she said. Meiners specifically mentioned ballot preparation, equipment testing, training, and dealing with the “dramatic increase of absentee voting.” “It takes a full year of work once the elections are over,” she said. “There is a lot more work in our department than you realize.”

Walter also voiced concern about the election process since, “we have about three per year,” she said. “I continue to hear there’s micro-management going on,” she added.

Commissioner Jack Miller offered clarification between management and micro-management. “Our responsibility is doing what we’re doing. That’s management. We’re looking at something that could reduce cost,” he said. “Micromanaging is standing over someone’s shoulder.”

Zmyewski added. “The question that has to be answered is, can you do more with less?”

Answering that question included the possibility of outsourcing work to contractors or to in-house departments with appropriate skill sets. When the Board faced conflicting information regarding the ability of these entities to perform the required work, the discussion was postponed until further clarification could be obtained.

Zmyewski told the Board he would like to go forward with the concept of a county administrator.

“We lose a lot of efficiency without a point-man,” he said. “We should not be involved as heavily as we are with day to day operations.”

Zmyewski also said that the position could be created without raising taxes.

“There’s plenty of ways to fund it,” he said. “This is a position that will fund itself through cost savings.”

Zmyewski asked the Board to discuss the idea at a future meeting.

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