Preliminary Washington County budget shows no increase in property tax levy

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 10, 2012 - 5:45 PM

The County Board will study the preliminary budget before adopting the final version in December

Washington County Board members got their first look at the proposed budget for 2013 and it includes money to restore library hours and fill the equivalent of 10 full-time positions but less money for capital projects such as bridges and roads.

The good news for taxpayers is that the amount in property taxes the county will levy in 2013 will remain the same as last year, about $86.1 million if the budget as presented last week at a workshop session is ultimately adopted. It also would be the third straight year without an increase to the property tax levy.

But there is likely to be some tweaking in the coming weeks as the board looks over budgets for each of the 12 departments that provide public services and tries to determine exactly how much County Program Aid it will receive from the state. Under a new formula for 2013, the state is supposed to send $6.8 million in aid to the county to help cover mandated services the county provides on behalf of the state. That figure is included in the county's overall budget of $173.4 million.

While there would be no increase in overall spending from 2012, operating expenses are projected to rise from $139.8 million in 2012 to $142.9 million in 2013. Some of that increase would occur if the board votes to restore library hours cut in 2012. If hours for Mondays, and possibly some Sundays, are restored in 2013, the county would need to hire the equivalent of 4.5 full-time employees.

The county also is looking at hiring a full-time parks maintenance worker for Big Marine Park, as well as staff to help with the burgeoning number of health care and food support cases the county processes. The number of county health care cases has risen 41 percent since 2008, to 9,431. And the number of people looking for food assistance has gone from 1,967 in 2008 to 4,315 in 2012.

The extra staff will "get cases reviewed quickly and get services to those who qualify," Deputy Administrator Kevin Corbid said.

Another reason for the higher operating amount is due to increased costs of labor contract settlements, officials said.

Even with the increased spending, county officials say they will have a balanced budget. They say park user fees could bring in more money and they could dip into reserves. They also propose shortening official county hours by 30 minutes a day. That means most offices -- excluding libraries and license centers -- would be open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Now they are open until 5 p.m. The county also will spend less on bridges and roads as many projects are being completed.

Corbid also said officials have identified items, such as replacing election equipment or remodeling of some service centers, that could be cut if the state's portion of the County Program Aid does not come through. The county also will likely defer some technology upgrades.

With past state deficits and the state's recurring money problems, "there is a strong likelihood the county won't receive the whole amount," Corbid said.

In an era of declining property values and uncertain state funding, County Administrator Molly O'Rourke said the proposed budget places a high priority for spending on core services of public safety, health and community services, parks, libraries and transportation.

County officials said that Washington County continues to have one of the lowest property tax burdens in the metro area, and that some homeowners could see their 2013 county tax bill drop because of declining home values.

The County Board must adopt a maximum levy by Sept. 11. It can decrease the amount after that, but it cannot raise the amount. A public hearing on the final budget will held Dec. 6, and the board will vote on it Dec. 11.

Tim Harlow • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @timstrib

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