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Freeborn County might not be able to donate to healthcare coalition

The approximately 1% of the 5.6% preliminary tax levy approved by the Freeborn County Board of Commissioners and set aside for a potential donation to the Albert Lea Healthcare Coalition may not have statute behind it, the Freeborn County attorney told the board Tuesday.

“The county cannot, by law, just give taxpayer dollars to anyone or any cause,” Freeborn County Attorney David Walker said.

Generally speaking, under the Minnesota constitution, a county must have legal authorization for its public expenditures, Walker said. This is one of two criteria. The second is that anything a public expenditure is paying for has to serve a public purpose.

But Walker said he does not see the first criterion being met by giving $200,000 to the coalition.

“I can’t find a statutory authorization for the board to give any money to the healthcare coalition,” he said.

Furthermore, Walker said, it is important for the board to focus on what the group is saying they would like to do, and it appears the purpose of the coalition’s plan is not to replace the services lost but to reduce the cost of healthcare by introducing a competitor.

Walker said he found plenty of authorization on giving money to hospitals.

“We don’t have a hospital,” County Commissioner Chris Shoff said. “It’s in Austin.”

There is a statutory definition of a hospital, the county attorney said, and a hospital is an institution with five beds that provides continuous care for 24 hours. Not all the beds went to Austin, Walker said.

According to Freeborn County Human Resources Director Candace Pesch, 45% of the people on the county’s insurance currently seek care outside of Mayo Clinic, but doing so is an option covered by the county’s plan. By switching to a plan that would exclude Mayo from in-network coverage, the county would save 13.4% on its health care costs, she said.

The county is in insurance sign-up now, but Pesch said a lot of people do not want to pick an option where Mayo is out of network for fear they may need to go to Mayo for care. The question, she said, is “‘What if?’”

However, the county has been in sign-ups for less than a week, Pesch said, and therefore it does not have a great picture yet of what its employees will choose.

To Freeborn County Administrator Tom Jensen, offering employees that choice is the right thing to do.

“I don’t think it’s for us to decide where we tell them to go,” he said. “I think it’s fundamentally wrong.”

Jensen also recommended the board uses the levy to replace approximately $229,100 in funds taken from the reserves to pay a Northern Natural Gas tax settlement. This is 1% of the levy.

The state assesses public utilities, Freeborn County Assessor Ryan Rasmusson said, and Northern Natural Gas argued that the state overvalued the entity. Therefore, Freeborn County has to pay into the settlement. Multiple counties are affected, Walker said.

Freeborn County has to repay approximately $585,883, but approximately $356,774 will be recouped from other entities in the county, Jensen said.

Replacing the reserve funding used for this payment is not required but is recommended, Jensen said.

At the meeting, Jensen recommended either a 4.9% or 4.6% final levy. The larger percentage would put more back into the reserves, Jensen said after the meeting. The 4.6% levy would put approximately $220,000 back in the reserves and would not include $200,000 for the Albert Lea Healthcare Coalition. If the reserves are not replenished and the healthcare coalition does not receive $200,000 from the county, the levy would be closer to 3.9%, Jensen said at the meeting.

However, Jensen said the commissioners will continue to talk with the healthcare coalition and the final levy amount is still up in the air.

Before the Dec. 17 decision to adopt a 2020 budget and tax levy, the county will hold a public truth in taxation hearing at 6 p.m. Dec. 5 to accept comments on the proposed 2020 budget and levy.

Presentations on elected official salaries are Nov. 12.

Also discussed at the meeting regarding the budget was an already-included additional mental health therapist. Additionally, Jensen proposed a drainage support position be added under the supervision of Freeborn County Auditor Pat Martinson. Money dedicated to county ditch work is a separate pot of money from the county levy, Jensen said, and hiring a ditch support position to do day-to-day operations — coding, filing, scanning, paying and checking bills, for instance — would reduce the amount of county staff time currently devoted to that work. Ditch costs paid for by the county are currently approximately $105,500, Jensen estimated, and he said a new ditch staff member with family insurance could save approximately $30,500.

 

About Sarah Kocher

Sarah covers education and arts and culture for the Tribune.

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