Hennepin County officials said Tuesday they need to raise $43 million more in property taxes next year, in part to pay for personnel and the surging costs of protecting children from abuse and neglect.
County Administrator David Hough proposed a 5.5 percent increase in the property tax levy during his budget presentation to the County Board. The proposal is a response to what Hough said were "significant ongoing challenges" faced by the county. He pointed to the massive new spending in recent years aimed at child protection services, which has drawn millions from budget reserves.
"You can't spend your savings account forever," said David Lawless, the county's chief financial officer. "We're trying to balance the budget a little bit, which does require some additional increases of property tax."
Child protection services had a $122 million budget this year, up from $73.6 million in 2015. Although it has increased staffing and strengthened its services, the agency still needs to reduce the number of children entering the system.
"The reforms ... around child well-being do not come without a cost," Hough said.
The county is also planning to spend more on salaries and benefits for employees, which would account for more than a third of the budget. About 8,384 people are expected to work full time for the county, 229 fewer than this year, according to county documents.
Property taxes pay for a third of the $2.4 billion county budget. If the levy is approved, the owner of a $281,000 house — the median value for the county — would pay $75 more in county property taxes, Lawless said.
The budget for capital projects would go up by $38 million to $475 million. More than half that would go toward light-rail and bus rapid transit expansion projects, and $78 million would fund roads, bridges and trails, according to county documents.
About $58 million would go toward health and human services facilities, including the expansion of Northpoint Health and Wellness Center in north Minneapolis and the construction of the new Medical Examiner's Office in Minnetonka. Libraries and county offices would receive another $55 million.
County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, the GOP candidate for governor, said the proposed tax levy was too high and that he was concerned about the amount of money the county is spending, including toward the new legal fund for residents facing deportation.
"I don't think it's sustainable for our constituents over time," he said. "We need to do a better job of focusing on what is the most important first."
Commissioner Debbie Goettel said that while she is happy with the county's human services, the Legislature needs to "step up" and contribute more resources to combat mental illness and opioid use. "The state needs to get real about this," she said.
Hough emphasized that the county needs to focus on reducing disparities found in housing, health and employment. "While many of our residents enjoy the great quality of life this region is known for, we cannot disregard the fact that stark disparities exist — particularly for our residents of color," he said.
A maximum property tax levy will be approved by the County Board next week. County departments will then make their budget pitches beginning in October.
The annual truth-in-taxation hearing will be held Nov. 27. County commissioners are expected to approve the final 2019 budget Dec. 11.
Miguel Otárola • 612-673-4753