Wright County Commissioners get in heated argument over 2013 budget

By John Holler

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For the last month, it has been known that sitting Wright County Commissioners Pat Sawatzke and Rose Thelen would be squaring off for one commissioner seat in November. At the Sept. 11 meeting of the Wright County Board, the gloves came off and the animosity between the candidates came front and center.

The last item on the board agenda was setting the 2013 draft budget and certified levy. Typically, the resolution to approve the budget and levy takes just a couple of minutes — most of that time being spent reading the numbers that make up the budget. However, the campaign trail came to the board room Sept. 11, as Thelen and Sawatzke argued — at times contentiously for 45 minutes, forcing two other commissioners to call the question on a vote three different times.

At the heart of the debate was Thelen’s assertion that the county is understaffing the human services department, which she termed as “inhumane.” She asked why the county isn’t staffing the request for six additional human services employees, while, at the same time, funding positions that have remained vacant for four years.

“It’s a shell game,” Thelen said. “We have $645,000 a year budgeted for vacant positions that aren’t filled and provide nothing. That has happened since 2008 and was in place when I joined the board in 2009. As we do the budget for 2013, it’s a total of $3.5 million that has been budgeted on nothing. They are phantom positions. I’m voting against this budget because I think it’s bogus.”

The argument over how positions would be staffed, centering on the hiring of a human resources director in the county coordinator’s office got heated as Thelen and Sawatzke made accusations about the other’s fiscal responsibility and commitment to the taxpayers of the county. Sawatzke accused Thelen of grandstanding and bringing their election battle into the board room,

“Commissioner Thelen, you’re the one who ambushed the board here today,” Sawatzke said. “You talk about people who are suffering. The taxpayers are suffering. Let people who are working every day to make ends meet get a break from paying higher taxes.”

The other commissioners expressed frustration as Sawatzke and Thelen exchanged barbs and rebutted statements made by the other for the next half hour and the accusations became more personal. On three different occasions, a commissioner “called the question” — typically which ends debate and calls for an immediate vote. When the vote finally was taken, the draft budget and levy was approved on a 3-2 vote — with Sawatzke and Thelen voting against it.

The board approved the official draft budget/levy numbers. The budget total is $102,876,775 – a 2.7 percent increase over 2012, with most of the increase being related to road and bridge projects. The draft levy (the amount paid by taxpayers) was set at $50,574,019 — the same amount as in 2012. Once it was approved, the figures can’t go up any higher. However, they can be reduced between now and the end of the year when the final budget and levy will be approved.