Nearly 100,000 preliminary tax notices arriving in Washington County mailboxes come with an asterisk this year because they don't include costs of several voter-approved school levies.
"That proposed tax is going to be a lot different from what the final tax shows," said Jennifer Wagenius, manager of the county's property records and taxpayer services division. Actual 2014 tax bills, mailed in March, will bring sharp contradictions in some instances.
The Stillwater district, for example, shows nearly a 30 percent reduction on the preliminary notice, but conversely a potential increase of 27 percent on the actual tax bill. That's because a previous levy is expiring, explaining the reduction, and the county's calculation of taxes for the preliminary notices began before voters approved the new $16.2 million levy in early November.
County officials, anticipating taxpayer confusion, expressed concern over how they should explain the differences in school taxes when taxpayers begin calling in March. Two members of the County Board urged caution at a recent workshop held to review the numbers.
"I don't know that we want to send a negative message out there in respect to the schools," said Fran Miron, who represents northern Washington County.
Commissioner Gary Kriesel said that "63 percent of voters approved the Stillwater referendum, so they want to invest in education."
The county's portion of the property bill — which also includes taxes that cities assess — will show a 0.2 percent increase after three consecutive years of no increases at all. The levy remained flat in 2011 and 2013 and was reduced in 2012.
A final vote on the 2014 proposed $147.4 million county operating budget and $23.1 million capital budget will come Dec. 17. Preceding that, a formal public hearing will be held Tuesday at 6 p.m. in the fifth-floor boardroom at the Washington County Government Center in Stillwater.
The proposed budget includes:
• More library hours, particularly on Sundays at the Forest Lake and Cottage Grove branch libraries.
• Updating of Sheriff's Office vehicles and improvements to the 911 telephone system.
• Improvements at the Lake Elmo Park Reserve swim pond.
• Technology improvements in county offices, including a new information system for human resources.
• Issuance of a $5 million bond for the voter-approved Land and Water Legacy program.
Preliminary notices mailed to taxpayers will show a total billing of $366.1 million, which includes the city and school district taxes. That's a reduction of 2.3 percent from 2013. The total of $374.8 million in 2013 was a 1.5 percent increase over the amount billed in 2012.
Meanwhile, in another blip of taxation, total costs of tax-increment financing (TIF) fell by more than 30 percent because of expiring districts in Cottage Grove, Forest Lake, St. Paul Park and Stillwater.
In a comparative ranking of seven metro counties, Washington County falls second-lowest per capita in the amount of county tax that will be assessed in 2014. The expected $619 tax on a $204,900 median-valued house compares favorably to more populated counties. Dakota County will assess less, at $592, but Ramsey County leads the pack with $1,186, according to Washington County numbers.