For Taxpayers, Local Governments Are Connected

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We’ve heard a few comments lately from Swift County public officials that have given us the distinct impression they believe that each of the taxing units to which we pay real estate taxes stands alone in the voter’s mind.

Further, their conclusion seems to be that each public body should have little concern for what the other is doing as far as raising taxes.

 “On an editorial note, I don’t see any members of the Benson School Board here, but we will try to make decisions as we can on our own,” Swift County Commission Chairman Eric Rudningen said with a chuckle at the start of the board’s May 1 meeting.
In a conversation we had about our concerns that a proposed new county building levy now could hurt the Benson Public School’s chances to pass its levy, a county official asked us what concern that was of the county?

Rudningen’s editorial comment was a direct reference to a column we had written back in late April.

Our column came in response to the county approving spending $20,000 to study the proposal for a two-story, 35,000-square-foot building to house the sheriff’s office, a new 25-bed jail, human services, 6W Community Corrections, the county attorney, and the Restorative Practices program. The estimated cost of the new building that would replace the current jail and sheriff’s office is $15.6 million.

This proposed project comes on the heels of a $5.1 million bond levy the county did in 2017 to renovate the courthouse and Countryside Public Health’s building in Benson.

With the District 777 Board of Education also considering a $20 to $28 million levy for badly needed school maintenance costs, a replacement for the Junior High auditorium, creating 21st Century learning spaces, and expanded space for infants, toddlers and pre-school children, we expressed concern that the county would “step on” the chances of this levy passing this year by pursuing another project now. The school district’s levy vote is planned for Aug. 14.

Funds raised through the levy will have a direct impact on the number of kids who enroll in our schools, the number of teachers we can hire, and the variety of courses we can offer students. It will help reverse the outflow of students to other districts.

Benson area businesses, which are struggling to find employees, say the quality of school facilities must be improved to ensure that potential employees they bring to the community see vibrant, visual evidence of a commitment to education. They say that quality facilities for day care and early children education are critical to attracting employees.

“With the multiple projects now under consideration, government leaders and citizens have to set priorities for what best meets the current needs of the county, school district, and city. For many who live in the area, there is a single, clear priority for public financing – the school,” we wrote back at the end of April.

“Taxpayers have only so much appetite for tax increases. Our schools are a priority. We sincerely hope the county board recognizes that and eases back with its plans until we get a school levy referendum passed,” we wrote. A reasonable request, we thought.

Of course we understand that each public body has to pursue the needs of its employees, facilities and programs. However, they don’t do this in a vacuum. Go ahead, study the needs, plan for the future, but be sensitive to the needs of the area as a whole.

And, before you dismiss the concerns of those of us who are taxpayers in both District 777 and Swift County, consider this:
All of District 2 Commissioner Ed Pederson’s constituents live in District 777.
All of District 3 Commissioner Pete Peterson’s constituents live in District 777.
Perhaps as many as 75 percent of District 4 Commissioner Joe Fox’s constituents live in District 777 today.
Even Commissioner Rudningen has District 777 residents as constituents and taxpayers.
Only Commissioner Gary Hendrickx, District 1-Appleton, has no local school district taxpayers in his district.

Based on Census data and population trends over the past decade, we estimate that about 56 to 60 percent of Swift County’s population lives in District 777. It is the economic energy center of the county with the greatest financial resources to improve the lives of all county residents.

The health of Benson Public Schools is essential to the health of Swift County – a dismissive attitude toward the need to work together doesn’t become an elected official looking out for the interests of Swift County, or his constituents, as a whole.

It also seems that county officials sometimes need a reminder the city and school district residents are also county residents who pay taxes and should have a voice – in fact, we city residents make up the vast majority of the county’s population.

The major employers in Swift County are located in and around the cities. They include our schools, hospitals, and manufacturers. Their financial health must be ever-present in the minds of our county officials, elected and appointed.

We aren’t saying the county shouldn’t pursue its building needs, rather we ask it be mindful of supporting and promoting the cities and school district as well. Being mindful can simply mean putting the timeline of a project in perspective. Yes, the county may seek to spend nearly $16 million on building projects, but it isn’t something the taxpayers will be asked to support this year – just point that out.

If county commissioners are dismissive of school district and city needs, or respond to their concerns with sarcasm, they just may lose the good will and support of those voters when they need it.

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