Lake County commissioners are debating how the U.S. Forest Service’s recent appraisal of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) will affect the county’s budget and future decisions.

Meeting with Forest Service

Back in June, the Forest Service said the county would receive a 53% reduction in Thye-Blatnik Act authorized payments in-lieu-of-taxes due to a reappraisal of the BWCAW, which will mean $1.3 million in PILT revenue annually. At the time, County Administrator Matt Huddleston estimated the difference could cause the county to have to raise the levy by 12.6%.

Lake County worked with neighboring St. Louis and Cook counties to conduct and submit its own counter-appraisal by the Aug. 1 comment period deadline.

Huddleston reports that the Forest Service is sending its appraiser to meet with each of the counties Sept. 11-12 to get clarification on their comments.

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“This is an opportunity to ask about what we might be able to see happen through this process,” Huddleston said. “As of right now, we don’t know if there’s a process where the appraiser could change their appraisal.”

County Board Chair Rich Sve said he’d spoken with regional member of the Forest Service about the issue as well.

“I told him, ‘My big concern here is, you guys have done an appraisal and you're going to try to defend it to us instead of listening to our feedback,’” Sve said. “And you’re sending an appraiser to meet with us. They’re going to be more defensive. That’s something we’re concerned about.’”

The board agreed to continue to pursue a meeting with more members of the Forest Service.

Budget and levy discussions

The board was also preparing for the budget meeting Wednesday, Sept. 4, regarding the preliminary levy. The board must approve its preliminary net property tax levy by Sept. 14. The number can be adjusted down, but it can’t be raised from the preliminary amount.

This amount is more difficult to set with the looming $1.3 million possible cut overhead.

Looking closer at positions

The board also informally agreed to begin more closely reviewing personnel positions as they arise in the future.

“As people leave and retire, we have a process to look at positions and consider not filling them,” Huddleston said. “And we do that regardless if there’s a funding issue or not, but with the funding issue in question, we’re wondering if you want us to do anything differently?”

Commissioner Rick Goutermont noted he’d like to see the justifications for positions as they are vacated.

“With the uncertainty of the funding and the impact that’s going to have, faced with having to raise the levy as high as it is, we’ll certainly have to look harder and maybe have more discussion,” Goutermont said. “ It’s a lot easier to not hire somebody than to lay someone off.

"I know there's a burden with shifting the workload onto other people, but I think we have to look and hear the justifications for a position until at time that this Boundary Water issue is behind us.”