With ever-increasing demands for services and a limited appetite for higher property taxes, Hennepin County should scale back or delay construction projects scheduled between now and 2013 by $200 million, the county administrator recommended Thursday.
Richard Johnson told the County Board that Hennepin's aggressive capital program and obligations linked to the city-county library merger and Hennepin County Medical Center could push total outstanding capital debt to $1.1 billion by 2013, roughly double what it is now. That would represent $956 of debt for each county resident.
By 2013, the debt service levy would make up 16 percent of the overall property tax. If that happened, Johnson said, the requirement to pay off capital debt could cut into what's available for other needs such as human services and public safety.
"The [building] needs don't go away and must be met, but those needs could be stretched out over time," Johnson told the board.
He suggested capping the debt service levy at 15 percent of the county's total annual property tax levy so that outstanding debt would not exceed $800 per capita.
To reach that goal, he gave the board a list of projects that could be cut or delayed.
On roads, priority should be given to projects that maximize the use of state, federal and other non-county funding, he said.
Construction of a $50 million family and service center in north Minneapolis could be pushed back past 2013, and new library projects in Brooklyn Park and Excelsior and to replace the Walker library could also be delayed. But Commissioner Jan Callison noted the $3.1 million for a new Excelsior library would "replace a seriously substandard building. I hope we rethink that."
Other suggestions on Johnson's list included cutting a planned maintenance facility in Orono, pushing back the building of a household waste facility in Minneapolis, reducing funding for an affordable housing project and deleting a proposal to build a courtroom at Brookdale.
If Johnson's list of reductions were implemented, per capita debt in 2013 would be $749 and the debt levy would make up 14.7 percent of the property tax levy.
The county has pledged to support $100 million in capital improvements to Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC). Those improvements have been needed for a long time for competitive and service reasons, Johnson said.
Commissioner Mike Opat, who also serves on the HCMC board, said the medical center is reexamining its capital plan and that some projects may be reconsidered. The cost of other county projects, notably replacing the Lowry Avenue Bridge, could be partly paid for with federal stimulus money if the county wins those awards.
Callison was shaken by tables that showed the debt levy share of the property tax levy increasing from about 8 percent last year to more than 16 percent by 2013.
"That's a big jump," she said. "That to me says we're getting out of whack, and we might not be able to do what we want to do."
Commissioners reviewed the proposals but wanted more details and said they need more information and more discussion before they decide what to do.
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380