The Washington County Board kept a lid on taxation for another year, but storm clouds loom on the fiscal horizon.
Commissioners at their Tuesday meeting approved a no-increase property tax levy for 2013, but they also adopted a slightly more costly $158.6 million operating expense budget.
Next year's property tax levy of $86.1 million continues a trend that began in 2011, when commissioners decided they wouldn't raise taxes during a recession.
"In this economic situation, I think it's important to be as conservative as possible," said Commissioner Dennis Hegberg after the board voted 5-0 last week to approve the levy. But commissioners also are fighting to maintain "core services" while state revenue promised to counties has shriveled in recent years.
For Washington County to keep its tax levy flat, it has had to find more savings in its expense budget and rely more on other non-levy sources of revenue, such as fees paid at county offices. The decrease in state funding also means that the county's share of the tax burden continues to grow even while costs associated with state-mandated programs stay about the same.
"As you can see, the property tax now funds half of all county revenues," Budget Director Kevin Corbid told commissioners at a recent public hearing.
State money paid to Washington County fell far below projections in 2010 and 2011. Corbid said of 2013, when the county expects $6.8 million: "We believe there's a strong likelihood the county won't receive this state aid amount."
On top of that challenging scenario, sharp increases in county population mean more residents now use services such as roads, welfare and Sheriff's Office policing. In the county's Community Services department, which administers welfare programs, numbers of health care and food support cases shot up because of economic struggles.
Washington County, home to 146,000 residents in 1990, now is approaching a quarter million. The population is projected to rise to 363,190 residents by 2030 -- much of it in the fast-growing cities of Woodbury, Cottage Grove, Oakdale, Hugo and Forest Lake.
"We're seeing more people than in the past and have less money for their needs," Corbid said.
The county's workforce, meanwhile, has declined. In 2013 the county will employ about 1,080 full-time equivalent positions, fewer than in 2008.
Most new hires will come in county libraries, where the equivalent of five full-time employees will be added. That reflects the County Board's recent decision to restore Monday hours at all libraries and Sunday hours at Woodbury's Stafford Library, the county's largest.
Adding more than 56 total operating hours a week will cost $284,000, which Corbid said will be funded from other portions of the county budget and not from the property tax levy.
Revenue from the tax levy will be supplemented with $80.1 million in non-levy money, such as fees collected at county offices. Another $438,400 was levied to raise money for the voter-approved county Land and Water Legacy Program to preserve open spaces and water quality.
Capital expenditures for 2013 will cost $13.6 million.
From a property owner's point of view, a typical $250,000 house will see a $23 decrease in county taxes next year, assuming an 8 percent value reduction. Most county property owners will see lower taxes in the county portion of their tax bills, although individual circumstances will vary, Corbid said. Bills also include special assessments and city, watershed and school district taxes.
Some see jumps in bills
Most of the half-dozen residents who addressed the County Board during the recent public hearing complained of steep increases in their property taxes.
One of them, David Haselbauer of Scandia, said his bill jumped 34 percent. Another, Norm Dupre of Baytown Township, said he had paid $152,000 in taxes in the past 10 years on his farm properties.
"That's not fair," he told commissioners. "I'm trying to sell off everything I own year after year to pay off Washington County."
Corbid said individual tax bills can vary widely. He encouraged residents who have questions to review their taxes with county assessors.
Statewide, Minnesotans can expect their property taxes to rise an average of 2.3 percent next year, the Minnesota Department of Revenue said recently. The estimate was calculated from proposed levies.
On the whole, cities are asking for the largest average increase at about 3.1 percent. Counties on average want a 1.7 percent increase, and schools are seeking a 2.1 percent hike.
Also last week, the Washington County Board approved a $574,800 tax levy for the Regional Rail Authority and $3.3 million for the Housing and Redevelopment Authority. Neither levy increased over 2012.
Tax bills for 2013 will be mailed in March. Residents recently received estimates of those bills.
The Tuesday votes ended a 2013 budgeting effort that began seven months ago.
Kevin Giles 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles