Commissioner votes against levy, says Winona County 'not open for business'

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WINONA, Mnn. — The Winona County Board of Commissioners approved the county's 2020 property tax levy Friday, though not without some disagreement about the increase.

On a 3-2 vote, the county board passed a levy of $20,277,075, a 4.31% increase over the 2019 levy.

"I've had a number of calls, parking lot conversations, grocery store conversations, and my constituents just cannot afford these continued increases," said Commissioner Marcia Ward, who along with Commissioner Steve Jacob voted against the levy.

By the same votes, the board also passed the 2020 budget at $51,416,462.

Jacob said he voted no because while county expenses have gone up modestly, the county promotes regulations that stifle business, especially in rural areas where animal agriculture is one of the main industries.

"I feel like we're not doing everything we can to allow business to grow," Jacob said. "And until we get to a point where we're allowing and facilitating every business we can, I'm not going to support the increased spending."

In making the motion to pass the levy, Commission Greg Olson said the county board and staff have worked hard to control spending. That sentiment was echoed by Commissioner Marie Kovecsi and Christine Meyer.

"We work hard on the budget," Kovecsi said. "Staff works hard before we do and after we do. There's not much new in this budget beyond salary increases."

Jacob said he agrees with the commissioners who voted in favor of the levy and budget, but there are two ends to the county budget, spending and growth in revenue, and that growth can only come through economic growth in the county.

County Administrator Ken Fritz said new development in the county has only increased a couple of percentage points over the last year to add to the tax base for 2020, but several projects will come on the books in the next few years.

"Over the next year, we'll get the Main Square development, Fastenal (expansion) and the Kmart conversion to Gundersen Health," Fritz said.

However, most of the development in the county is in Winona, and less so outside of the city. Fritz said there has been some new housing in St. Charles plus the new car dealership and other additions coming to the Interstate 90 business park in St. Charles.

"Other than St. Charles, in the rural area, there's not a lot going on," Fritz said. "And it's certainly not with the farms."

Jacob said he's remained consistent over the years, asking that all businesses be given an opportunity in Winona County. However, bans on frac sand mining or construction on the bluffs plus the animal unit cap that stops feedlots from growing is hurting economic development in the county.

"It's my opinion that ban after ban sends a message to the broader community outside Winona County, are you open for business or are you not?" Jacob said. "It sends a message, we're not open for business."

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