Rising fuel costs, inflation and other factors complicate efforts to serve a growing population.
Compiling next year's Washington County budget has been particularly challenging because of a half-million-dollar increase in fuel costs, Legislature-imposed levy limits, state aid to counties that isn't keeping pace with inflation, and ongoing pressure from unfunded state mandates, Molly O'Rourke, the county's deputy administrator, told commissioners Tuesday.
O'Rourke, the county's budget director, described preparation of the 2009 budget as "agonizing" as the county struggles to balance property taxes with unexpected costs and continuing population growth. Washington County now has about 230,000 residents with a projected population of 316,000 by 2020.
The proposed $169.8 million budget includes a 4.9 percent increase in property taxes, O'Rourke told commissioners.
The five commissioners have taken no action on the proposal, prepared by O'Rourke and other county staff members. Public hearings will follow and revisions are possible before the final budget is adopted in December.
This year's property tax levy, approved late last year, is 6.9 percent.
Commissioners grumbled about unfunded state mandates in a discussion earlier in their meeting Tuesday, making clear that they weren't happy about the state shifting costs to county governments. "We're perceived to be an arm of the state and do as we're told," said Commissioner Dick Stafford, who represents Woodbury.
O'Rourke said that Washington County has the second-lowest tax rate among metro counties and also the lowest per capita spending. She said the county will spend about $348 per resident in 2008.
The county has new costs next year, such as $615,000 for heating, lights and maintenance in the new courthouse and expanded law enforcement center in Stillwater. The Sheriff's Office is getting a new record management system for $603,000, and state-mandated court security will cost about $212,000. Fuel for snowplows, sheriff squad cars and other county vehicles is soaring to about $1.1 million in 2009, compared with $637,000 this year.
O'Rourke said that while county program aid from the state will increase $833,000 in 2009, a disturbing trend has become apparent. "It's not keeping up with inflation nor is it keeping up with state mandates," she told commissioners.
To help offset costs, the county proposes to add just one job and part of another next year. That compares with an average of 28 new positions a year over the past five years that were added to serve Washington County's growing population, O'Rourke said.
"This will mean that caseloads will get more intense, that we'll have a longer wait time for services," she said of next year's county staffing.
Kevin Giles • 651-298-1554