The Washington County Board has approved the county's 2014 budget and levy, which calls for a $148.2 million operating budget and $22.4 million in capital expenditures.
The board gave the budget and levy initial approval in September, and by state law has until December to cast a final vote.
The budget includes a tax levy that will result in the owner of a home valued at $207,000 — one that increased in value by 2.4 percent from last year, the countywide average for residential property — seeing a decrease of $4 in the county's portion of the property tax paid in 2014. The County Board also made the decision to reduce the County Environmental Charge from 37.5 percent to 35 percent, which will go into effect in April, saving property owners a cumulative $440,000 a year.
The budget has a property tax levy of $87.7 million, a 0.66 percent increase from 2013 for the county's levy, and a 0.72 percent increase that will be devoted to the voter-approved Land and Water Legacy Program. The tax rate is projected to decline by more than 4 percent.
The property tax levy increase is the first in the county in four years. In those years, commissioners said their constituents didn't want any tax increases.
Met Council grants help with park upgrades
The Washington County Board reached an agreement with the Metropolitan Council on Dec. 17 to fund upgrades to Lake Elmo Park Reserve and the Hardwood Creek Trail.
Grant money from the Metropolitan Council is part of the budgeted revenue sources for these projects that are in the Washington County capital program for 2014.
At the Lake Elmo Park Reserve, Phase I of an improvement to the park's swim pond will provide parking, buildings and other improvements to the park. A Metropolitan Council grant for $776,000 from the state parks and trails fund, funded by sales taxes, will pay for part of the project. The total project budget is $1,676,000.
Work planned for the Hardwood Creek Regional Trail involves the construction and repair of the bituminous surface of the regional trail. The project will extend the trail south to 140th Street, along the Regional Rail Authority Corridor. A Metropolitan Council grant for $45,000 from the state parks and trails fund will pay for the project.
Electronic medical records replace paper system at jail
The Washington County Board has approved an electronic medical records system for the county's jail. State law requires that all hospitals and health care providers have such a system in place by Jan. 1, 2015.
The current paper-based medical record system used in the jail medical unit is not adequate, the county said. In addition to the cost of maintaining and storing paper medical records, county health care providers are unable to quickly find patient information.
The new system should decrease staff time spent creating, pulling, managing, transmitting and storing paper records; help avoid medication and treatment errors due to illegible or misinterpreted handwriting; help avoid duplicate laboratory, radiology and other tests which increase costs; and standardize patient health and performance measurement data. The current paper records also require extensive storage space.
The county will buy NextGen's Ambulatory Electronic Health Record and Practice Management Software. The project budget of $238,000 includes expenses for software purchases, system interfaces, implementation, staff training and a project management consultant.
Businesses help restore city park
Half a dozen businesses in Scandia donated time and materials earlier this month to complete a small gravel parking lot at Lilleskogen Park.
Landmark Surveying, Interstate Cos., Peterson Excavating, Tiller Corp. and Critical Connections all contributed to site surveying, earthwork, sand and gravel materials, and invasive species removal in the $13,000 project. The Scandia City Council formally accepted the donation at its Dec. 17 meeting.
Lilleskogen Park (Little Forest) is the site of the Old Lions Park on Oakhill Road. The Scandia Marine Lions used to maintain the park but turned it over to the city some years ago.
The city of Scandia approved the Lilleskogen Park Restoration Plan in 2008. Since that time, a water control structure has been installed and trails cleared out. But with Park Capital Improvement Funds dwindling, the city had to look for other ways to get the improvements done. Earlier this summer a church youth group began spreading wood chips along trails.
Holiday Train raises donations to help the hungry
Pop singer Sheryl Crow headlined the Holiday Train celebration in Cottage Grove last week, which raised more than $236,000 to benefit local food shelves.
About 15,000 people descended on the city's rail yard for the show, which also featured the gospel group Take 6 and The Claystones, the train's traveling band. The event also included crafts, a place to meet Santa Claus, Christmas tree displays and other attractions.
Among the night's beneficiaries was the Friends in Need Food Shelf in St. Paul Park, which, as of Wednesday morning, had received $136,000 in donations and 13,300 pounds of food and toiletries, director Michelle Rageth said in an e-mail. Canadian Pacific Railway, which sponsored the event, sent a check for $20,000 to Friends in Need and another for $100,000 to Feeding America, a national hunger-relief agency.
Rageth said the donated money and generosity exceeded her wildest expectations. Last year's event drew $116,000 in donations, she said.
Since 1999, the Holiday Train has raised about $7.4 million and collected about 3 million pounds of food for North American food shelves. This year the train's three-week journey includes stops in eight Midwest and Northeast states, including 26 cities in Minnesota.
Kevin Giles, Libor Jany