The Ramsey County Board, expressing a mix of emotions, voted unanimously Tuesday to raise the property tax levy by 4.75% in 2020 — the first year of a two-year budget plan that will see the levy rise in that period by nearly 10%.
Commissioners said they were proud of efforts to improve services under the "Transforming Systems Together" initiative, with a focus on putting residents first, improving racial equity and investing more in programs that help struggling individuals and families in hopes of reducing spending on jail, juvenile delinquency and child protection services.
But commissioners said they understood the immediate sting of higher taxes.
"Our budget is a moral document. Where you put your money and how you measure your outcomes and the goals you have as a county are all interrelated. You can't do one without the other," said Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt.
But Reinhardt said the tax increase has weighed heavily on her mind. "All of us have struggled with the levy amount. It will go up 4.75%. That is hard to swallow," she said.
The total levy will rise to $333.6 million in 2020, and under the county's two-year budget plan will climb another 4.5% in 2021 to $348.6 million.
The levy accounts for about 44% of the overall budget, which will top $741.7 million in 2020. Federal and state dollars and service charges account for much of the rest.
In the 2020 budget, the owner of a median-valued $200,000 single-family home in St. Paul will pay an additional $52 per year in county taxes. The owners of a median-valued $272,000 single-family home in Roseville will pay an additional $78 per year.
Reinhardt said some of the levy increase can be attributed to state and federal mandates requiring counties to carry out programs without providing additional funding. A 2.5% cost-of-living wage increase for the county's 3,800 employees also was a factor.
The best way to understand "Transforming Systems Together," county leaders said, was to look at the changes already happening in the county's criminal justice programs.
Ramsey County this year closed Boys Totem Town, a century-old juvenile detention center, and pivoted resources to community-based programs for troubled kids and their families.
County officials eliminated some jail fees and are partnering with national think tanks to study ways to further reduce fines and help people serving probation.
The overarching goal is to invest in new approaches that improve outcomes and save money, said Ramsey County Manager Ryan O'Connor.
"It's about serving people better by breaking down our silos," said O'Connor, who wants the county to rethink how it does business.
For instance, the county's corrections department was moved from the public safety team to the health and human services team, with the understanding that the county's ultimate goal is to help people transition back into the community and find jobs and homes. O'Connor said the old reactionary ways of doing business have proved more costly in the long run.
"The child protection budget has gone up 100% in the last 10 years, from $10 [million] to $20 million," he said.
Newly elected Commissioner Nicole Joy Frethem said the mantra "Transforming Systems Together" has raised eyebrows among some of her constituents. But she said it makes sense to people when boiled down to its essence: "This is about moving funding upstream to less expensive interventions."
She said the budget is a "smart plan" for the community.
"This levy increase will hit the hardest the communities I represent," said Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo, who represents St. Paul's North End and Falcon Heights. But she added that the investments in equity and better services are worth it.
Perhaps the most controversial piece of the 2020 budget was the plan to close the Ponds at Battle Creek, a nine-hole county-owned golf course in Maplewood. According to county documents, it has lost money in seven of the past 10 seasons.
After some discussion, the closure will move forward after the 2020 season.