Hennepin County cuts tax levy by 1 percent

  • Article by: KEVIN DUCHSCHERE
  • Star Tribune
  • December 14, 2010 - 10:12 PM

Having made it safely through a troubled year -- and with more trouble just around the bend -- Hennepin County commissioners on Tuesday cut next year's property tax levy by 1 percent in response to homeowners' pleas for relief.

The last-minute move pared the county's 2011 budget by $6.8 million, putting the total spending plan at $1.56 billion. That's nearly $88 million less than this year's budget, making it the second year in a row that the state's largest county has cut spending.

Commissioner Mark Stenglein, who chairs the board's budget committee, said that unhappy taxpayers speaking at a recent truth-in-taxation hearing "got our attention." Many said they were facing steep tax hikes next year despite falling home values.

"If we don't need the money, we shouldn't levy for it," Stenglein said after Tuesday's meeting. "I'd rather see it in their hands."

The board had already decided it wouldn't increase next year's levy. But the 1 percent cut, passed unanimously after being introduced by Chairman Mike Opat, stood in sharp contrast with the board's decision last year at this time to raise the property tax levy higher than planned, to 4.95 percent.

Much of that increase was designed to help Hennepin County Medical Center meet higher costs generated by state cuts in medical assistance. HCMC had a better year than expected, prompting the board to zero out the hospital's $18.7 million contingency fund next year.

The board on Tuesday rejected efforts by Commissioner Jeff Johnson to cut the levy by an additional $4.7 million, or 1.7 percent, and to trim the county's $585,000 lobbyist budget by $30,000.

But Johnson, an ardent opponent of most spending increases, in the end joined his colleagues in voting to approve the budget and levy.

Commissioners predicted that assembling the 2012 budget next year will be even tougher. With the state facing a $6.2 billion deficit for the two-year budget period starting next July, officials fear that state funds flowing to the county will be greatly reduced.

County Administrator Richard Johnson said the 2011 budget likely will be reviewed and adjusted when the state figures out how to tackle its deficit.

"When the state sneezes, we catch pneumonia," Stenglein said.

All county departments, and most programs, will have lower budgets in 2011. Transportation is being cut by 6.3 percent, and the sheriff's office by 2.2 percent. Libraries will get 1.8 percent less, but the cuts won't affect library hours. General government departments, which include county administration and taxpayer services, are being cut be nearly 10 percent.

Well over 100 county jobs will be eliminated, mostly through attrition, and a wage freeze will continue for employees.

Opat warned that the budget "will begin to bring real pain to real people" and noted that even though state funding is shrinking, the number of county residents getting help isn't. The budget is the result of good management, clear priorities and service cuts, he said.

"This is a fantastic budget, given the times," he said.

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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