Supervisors opt to pay $900,000 911 tower bill through Emergency Management

By Zach Jensen,

The Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors is considering making one of its final $900,000 payments on the county’s new Emergency 911 tower system through the Emergency Management Commission (EMC).

Such an expense will cause property taxes to increase slightly, but everyone involved in the discussion, during the Jan. 22 meeting of the Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors, agreed the way Winneshiek County is achieving the upgrade is the best deal for its taxpayers.

Upon completion, Winneshiek County Emergency Management Director Sean Snyder said that for a total of seven towers, the county will have paid approximately $5.2 million since 2017, when the project began — at least half of what most other counties are spending for the same or similar projects.

For example, in August 2023, Allamakee County Sheriff Clark Mellick estimated the upgrade could cost taxpayers in that county $12 million.

The discussion during the supervisors meeting was to decide how this July’s $900,000 payment would be made. County Auditor Ben Steines said the supervisors could ask the EMC to pay the full amount.

“You could do that,” Steines told the supervisors. “That would relieve the stress on the General Fund, but it would also require a tax levy increase. I don’t believe it is a good idea to lower your General Fund levy, because of the restrictions, because that will then set you at a lower starting point next year at this time. You’re going to end up with a supplemental levy increase anyway, without doing any of this because of the new IT position that we’re funding through Emergency Management, and the property insurance costs are going up.”

In an interview following the meeting, Steines explained the Board already made a $500,000 payment when it signed the contract and a $900,000 payment in July 2023. He said the payment issue stems from the fact that the Board didn’t have enough funds to make the payment in July 2024 due to the new restrictions on property taxes passed in the state’s last legislative session.

“$900,000 represents a levy rate of about 63 cents per $1,000 of taxable valuation,” Steines said during the interview. “So, Emergency Management will need to include this in their portion of the levy, but the Board was going to need to come up with the money somehow.”

Steines told the supervisors other counties doing the tower upgrades issued bonds for the project, which ended up costing taxpayers in those counties more due to interest, bond service fees, financial consultant fees and attorney’s fees.

“And, you’re looking at a year where we’re having a little bit less than 1 percent increase in values, but it’s almost all in predominantly residential values,” Steines said. “So, rural landowners are actually — their taxes are going down if you don’t change the levy rate. So, if you do have to raise it some, they’re not going to see as big of a hit as they would otherwise.”

“No matter how you do it, it makes the county look like they’re the ones, sitting there, with their hand in the cookie jar,” Winneshiek County Sheriff Dan Marx said to the supervisors. “Look, we saved the county money. We maybe didn’t do it the traditional way. But, we actually saved money. My question always is: ‘What is it worth, when it’s your child laying there needing emergency services?’ When your loved one is the one in need, what’s it worth?”

In the post-meeting interview, Steines said that if the board “actually runs a ‘surplus’ for next year, they could lower this amount yet, and pay for some of it on their own.” He added that there are two more $900,000 payments due — one this July and one in July 2025 — after which there will then be a “remainder” payment in July 2026 for additional expenses, “but this will be much smaller (probably less than $100,000),” he said.  

The supervisors agreed that the full $900,000 payment should come from Emergency Management, and Steines went over the particulars of the arrangement with the Emergency Management Commission during its Jan. 24 meeting.

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