After much discussion, the St. Croix County Board approved the 2019 County Budget at its Nov. 6 meeting with an amendment that lowered the 2019 property tax levy to 2.8 percent. The proposed levy increase had been 4.2 percent.

The amendment was proposed by Supervisor Scott Nordstrand to transfer $2.5 million of the county's unassigned fund balance to its debt service fund in order to pay off a short-term loan. The amendment also allowed the county to set the 2019 levy at 2.8 percent, reducing the levy by $471,727.

The county has a policy to maintain a 35 percent unassigned fund balance, but because the 2018 budget set the unassigned fund balance at 40 percent, the $2.5 million transfer by the board to a different fund was allowed.

According to amendment language, paying off the loan early will save the county $152,570 in interest. Reductions in the 2020 and 2021 property tax levies needed to pay off debt are also projected, totalling nearly $2.2 million in savings, or $1.1 million each year.

Though there was concern from some supervisors that lowering the levy would affect the operating budget and limit the county's ability to offer essential services in the future, County Administrator Pat Thompson clarified that paying down the debt does not affect the rest of the operating budget.

However, Thompson expressed concern that using some of the county's savings to pay off debt early would cause a shortage of funds for upcoming capital improvement projects, including major jail improvements and replacement of the county's emergency communications vehicle.

"Now I know this is all conjecture, it's all looking ahead, but that's my job," Thompson said.

Supervisor Andy Brinkman argued the county didn't have enough money to fully fund the planned improvements to the jail anyway and would have to borrow money regardless. Other supervisors brought up the advantages of money saved on interest by paying off the debt early.

The board passed the amendment 11-6.

Additionally, Thompson said the budget focused on adding more resources in areas with significant demand increases because of the county's growth. The county grew by about 5 percent in 2018.

"This is good news (and) bad news because it continues to put pressure on our budget to meet the increased demand for services of a county our size, and one that continues to grow in our geographic location," he said.

One of the strains on the county's resources is services related to rising opioid and methamphetamine addiction. Thompson said it has increased the demand for services in all of the county's departments, from Health and Human Services to law enforcement to the medical examiner.

The full 2019 budget document can be viewed on the county website.