What's pulling Scott County apart?

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 24, 2012 - 11:13 PM

Differences over the county's taxes and spending are dividing commissioners, without easy answers about who's right.

Miffed by reports depicting Anoka County as the one place in the metro area that's throttling back on spending to avoid a jolt to taxpayers, Dakota County recently distributed a spreadsheet laying out what has truly been happening, year in and year out, since 2004.

Looked at in that light, Dakota shines: Unlike some, notably Anoka, it clamped down firmly years ago and has kept a lid on taxes since.

What also springs to the eye is the increases in neighboring Scott County: cumulatively, over roughly a decade, nearly 66 percent. No one else is higher than 43 percent, and most are far less.

But there are other ways of comparing.

Washington County tells its constituents that, of the seven metro counties, it has the second-lowest operating costs per capita. Second to whom?

Scott.

The distance between those two key facts lies behind much of the tension and, at times open sniping, in the county seat of Shakopee in recent weeks.

County Board Chairman Tom Wolf laments a history of "exponential" tax increases. Newcomer Dave Menden says, "We keep nailin' 'em and nailin' 'em." Those kinds of criticisms enrage veterans such as Jon Ulrich, who insists: "We're all fiscal conservatives."

Personal accusations were flying in a board meeting earlier this month that ended with County Administrator Gary Shelton coming within a single vote of being removed from office. But the tension became palpable long before that.

The public is expressing unhappiness with the tax burden in the county's own surveys, and against that backdrop some board members suspect one another and top staffers of maneuvering for unfair advantage in both redistricting of seats and in the court of public opinion.

Is one side right?

A look at a range of sources suggests that each has points to make, and that there's a big underlying problem: the confusion caused by multiple ways of depicting what's going on.

1Compared to other suburban counties, Scott is neither the spendiest nor the most miserly, which also means it provides neither the highest nor the lowest level of service.

All of them, for instance, are building roundabouts, for instance, as both a safer and -- over time -- cheaper alternative, though they do cost at the outset. Scott's total, about a dozen, is roughly twice that of some metro counties, statewide figures show, but about half that of others.

In the realm of libraries it's much the same.

Carver County, with higher tax rates, offers better service than Scott.

"We probably do lag them," Shelton said. "Our libraries are smaller, with fewer hours and fewer computers by far."

But unlike Washington County, which is closing libraries, Scott is opening new ones.

2Scott should spend less on some big-ticket items than other counties, because it has fewer needs.

Scott County is one of the richest counties in the state. Of the 87 Minnesota counties, the rate of food stamp usage per household (in Scott, 3.5 percent) in one recent year was less than a percentage point higher than the county using them the least: Carver, with 2.6 percent.

An offset to that, Shelton said, is that the Scotts and Carvers get less outside aid, which is based in part on poverty and crime. But he agrees that the needs are also less: in the most recent year for which the state auditor produces comparative data, Scott spent $21 million on human services, Hennepin more than $450 million. Scott's much smaller, but even per capita, that puts Hennepin well over twice as high.

3If Scott's tax growth was "exponential" for a time, so was its population growth.

"You can't take any one measure for tax comparisons," Shelton said, "and come up with a 'good' or 'bad.' [Dakota's spreadsheet] doesn't include the element of growth. Theirs is less than ours. If you looked at the same spreadsheet from '85 to '95, when they were growing rapidly, they probably saw that same type of 55 to 65 percent increase. So you can't go by that."

The comeback is that Scott wasn't alone in having rapid growth -- which leads to the next point:

4Perhaps more than any metro county, Scott got caught in a sudden bind when the housing market crashed.

Scott was ratcheting up spending to keep up with hypergrowth, and prepare for more, just before the crash arrived. It took time to grasp just how severe and long-lasting the crash would be.

Scott's population shortfall by Census 2010, versus projections, was the state's most severe. It expected by now that tens of thousands more people would be contributing taxes.

County spending didn't just rise because population did: Seeing fast growth and expecting lots more for many years to come, board members hit the accelerator on roads spending, adding large sums to the levy year by year. Spending on roads, and on a costly new jail -- which stands mostly empty -- are among the biggest-ticket items.

Then came the implosion.

"Did we forecast [the crash]?" asks Shelton. "No. No one did. Did we react as soon as was reasonable? Yes. Roads spending was rising by 2006, 2007, but it slowed and then decreased. In fact we ratcheted down faster than up.

"We still have concerns that we may have decreased funding too much. A number of roads are still seriously undersized for what they carry."

The jail was built for and bonded over a 30-year period, he said, and "I'll bet you we will be full or crowded before that period is over just as we were for decades with the old jail."

It would be fairer, he said, to criticize the county for underbuilding courtrooms, in a period when there's talk of night court to handle overflow.

5Scott is moving aggressively to cut costs.

Unions in Scott have taken hits to their pay, and Scott is a leader in saving through collaboration in an era when money is drying up.

A transit partnership with Carver, Shelton said, means "we nearly doubled the number of rides while costs stayed level." A partnership with the Hennepin-based Three Rivers park system means "we opened a regional park seven days a week without raising costs. Without collaboration, that wouldn't happen."

 

6The debate over who ranks where is hampered by a lack of widely accepted metrics.

If there's a single number among the blizzard of numbers that Shelton would point to, it's the county tax on a $225,000 home.

Looking at the five years from 2006 to 2011, "the actual dollar amount -- what people pay -- did not change substantially in most of the seven metro counties. The most favorable outcome for taxpayers, by his calculations, was in Carver, which reduced the dollar figure by about $50. "Scott was second [best], with a $4.05 change over the five year period."

Both he and his Carver County counterpart, Dave Hemze, agree that there's no simple, universally accepted means of comparison.

"Varying service levels are a real problem in trying to do this," Hemze said. "It's like comparing Wal-Mart to your local hardware store. I have heard, though I can't back it up, that another county once took a shot at unraveling all this and basically gave up. It was way too complicated."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

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