Maybe it was the slush outside, or dire forecasts of the season’s first significant snowfall and deep-freeze temperatures.
The five Washington County commissioners, poised to approve a $148.3 million operating budget for 2014, held an evening meeting last week to accommodate residents wanting a say in taxes and spending.
None showed up.
The boardroom on the fifth floor of the county Government Center in Stillwater was empty except for a handful of county employees and three news reporters. The meeting, which state law requires, began with a slide show presentation by Budget Director Kevin Corbid and ended 35 minutes later after board chairwoman Lisa Weik didn’t find any takers for public comment.
Not that the budget is controversial by any measurements that might arouse public indignation. The net tax levy of $86.7 million represents an increase of .66 percent, the first in four years. Even so, about 53 percent of property owners in Washington County will see a decrease over this year’s bills, Corbid said.
The other increase will come in spending for the voter-approved Land and Water Legacy program, which will levy a bit more than $1 million in 2014 to pay for bond purchases that will fund more land acquisitions. That portion of the budget will cost property owners $5 each next year.
Together, the net levy and the land and water increase will represent a tax bump of 1.4 percent.
Capital improvement expenses, which include more money for road repair and construction, stand at $22.4 million, an increase of 22.7 percent over 2013 spending.
An informal spending oversight group, Washington County Watchdog, has criticized capital improvement spending as excessive. The group’s Facebook page has invited more than 330 people to attend the County Board’s meeting on Dec. 17, when commissioners will cast their final vote for the budget.
Last Wednesday, only four people had indicated their desire to do so.
Commissioner Fran Miron, a former longtime Hugo mayor, said he wasn’t surprised that nobody came to testify. The county worked hard to keep costs down while still addressing continuing population growth that brings a demand for more services, he said.
The budget hearing was held for only the county’s portion of 2014 property taxes, which will be billed in March. Taxes in some school districts, including Stillwater, will show dramatic increases because of levies that voters approved in November.
The county’s 2014 budget documents can be reviewed at www.co.washington.mn.