Fortunes improve in most government services, wither in a few others. An annual report tracks which trends need more attention.
The frequency of violent crime has fallen. Story time visits to libraries have soared. Park visits continue to climb as mortgage foreclosures continue to plummet.
That’s the latest news in Washington County, where an annual snapshot determines trends in health, public safety and other categories and measures how county government has responded.
“It’s important that we make good solid decisions based on the information we receive,” said Fran Miron, one of five members of the County Board who recently reviewed the 2013 report.
Some of the indicators suggest opportunities for reduced spending, others flag potentially greater expense. Commissioners and county administrators will weigh the findings as they decide next year’s budget.
Some specific trends noted in the report:
• The number of low birth weights, an indicator of a newborn’s health, declined sharply in the county since 2010. The county attributes the decline to ongoing work by public health nurses to find at-risk pregnant women and offer voluntary home visits.
• Immunizations for children in Washington County have been consistently lower than the state average since 2009, and the county is trying to find out why. A study will determine if some residents can’t take advantage of services, or whether the county has a higher number of “conscientious objectors” to vaccines.
• In a measurement of whether children remain free from danger — “absence of repeat maltreatment” — the county exceeds Minnesota and national standards. “Protecting the safety of minor children is a major responsibility and is taken very seriously,” the report said.
• The most violent crimes in Washington County, such as homicides, sexual assaults and robbery, decreased by 5 percent in 2013. Lesser crimes such as forgery, embezzlement and prostitution fell by 14 percent. The Sheriff’s Office attributed the decline to increased cooperation among law enforcement agencies, diligent citizen watch groups, crime prevention efforts and an improved economy.
• Annual median household income has returned to pre-recession levels, rebounding from a five-year decline. Washington County, with a median household income of $80,246, continues to rank third in wealth among metro counties behind Scott and Carver counties. “It illustrates the speed of economic recovery for Washington County,” the report said.
• Visits to county parks continue to soar. An estimated 1.5 million people visited parks in 2012, when most recent records were available, compared with 992,800 visitors in 2007.
• Unemployment fell for the fourth year in a row to 4.6 percent last year. In a related trend, county food support cases continued a six-year climb. That’s because many people who qualified for food support during the recession later found work, but because of low salaries in their new jobs they continue to qualify for county assistance, the report said.
• Sales prices of houses have rebounded, too, although not to pre-recession levels. Washington County prices still substantially exceed median metrowide sales prices. Mortgage foreclosures, meanwhile, have plunged 47 percent since 2010. “The foreclosure crisis may finally be past,” the report said.
• Residents have hit a plateau in recycling of paper, plastic and other materials, with participation remaining about the same since 2010. However, last year residents brought 1.6 million pounds of electronics to the county’s recycling center in Woodbury. The electronics portion of the program began in 2008.
• Library visits fell, but not from a lack of interest in reading. Digital borrowing continued to increase, but recovery from the recession played a role in this trend, too. “Historically, library use increases during periods of economic downturns and decreases during periods of economic recovery,” the report said.
• In a related trend, attendance at story times and other children’s programs soared at county libraries. Story time popularity has grown by 47 percent since 2006.
• The County Attorney’s office continued its pattern of quicker decisions on charging criminal offenses. The average, at seven days, compared with 26 days in 2009.
• Permits granted to carry firearms jumped to nearly 3,500 in Washington County in 2013, about seven times greater than in 2007. “A variety of factors could be causing the increase, including personal safety, school and workplace shootings, and the possibility of national and state gun law reform making it more difficult to purchase and carry a firearm,” the report said.