Strapped with unfunded state and federal mandates that weigh heavily on property tax levies, Washington County is again taking its "repeal or reform" message to legislators.

Those mandates — government-required expenses, in layman's talk — pile millions of dollars on Washington County budgets each year, forcing an ever-greater reliance on property taxes to support them. Mandates come in all forms, such as requiring that county deputies police state courtrooms to requiring random drug testing of convicted state felons.

"Even as the economy improves, counties face a continuing tendency at the state level to ease state budget limitations by passing the cost of certain mandates services onto local units of government, especially counties," Washington County leaders recently stated in their 2015 legislative agenda.

State mandates now account for about 80 percent of county spending, said County Administrator Molly O'Rourke. Shifting of state costs to the county property tax continues despite that tax being "regressive" and unpopular, she said.

Despite some successes by local legislators to amend bills to prevent shifting of costs, O'Rourke said, new mandates have erased relief for county taxpayers.

Recent Legislatures increased county program aid — a sum of money given annually to help pay for mandates — and eliminated a sales tax on county purchases. Also repealed was a controversial short-term offender mandate that required counties to house state prisoners.

Those gains were offset by reductions in county state aid for highways, cost increases for mandates relating to the mentally ill and sexual predators, and strict levy limits that pinched how much money counties could raise to pay for mandates.

In recent years the majority of funding for Community Corrections — the county division that oversees probation of people convicted of crimes — has rested with the county. In 2002, the county paid 47 percent of those costs. In 2015, it will pay 75 percent.

In other instances, the county pays for day training for people with developmental disabilities, for updating a state-required comprehensive plan every 10 years, for managing property forfeited to the state, and for pretrial bail evaluations of criminal defendants.

O'Rourke said Washington County continues to plead its case to the Legislature even when it appears few people are listening.

"It's important for legislators to remember that we bear costs based on their actions," she said. "Just because it's called a mandate doesn't mean it's bad. Many times they are the right thing to be doing. The question is, who should be doing them and who should be funding them?"

Karla Bigham, the county's newest commissioner and a former legislator, said the consequences of mandates don't go unheeded in the Legislature.

"They understand the restrictions but they are trying to do their job to balance the budget," Bigham said. "It's the unfunded portion of mandates that upsets counties."

Bigham said she will begin talking with other county commissioners and with the Association of Minnesota Counties to explore solutions "so the property taxes aren't so disproportionate."

Resolving the funding is urgent, she said, because population growth will require even more services, squeezing Washington County property taxpayers even more.

In 2000, local taxpayers were responsible for paying 46 percent of the county budget. Today, they pay 59 percent.

"We're becoming much more dependent on the property tax because state funding isn't keeping up," O'Rourke said.

The Washington County Board held the line on property tax increases in recent years, with no increase in 2011 and 2013, a decrease in 2012, and a slight increase in 2014. This year's 3.49 percent increase came in part because of pay increases — many county employees hadn't received any for several years — and because of rising health care costs, the county said.

O'Rourke said the concern for property taxpayers is whether they have the ability to pay, and said state mandates would be better funded through sales or income taxes.

"Just because you have property doesn't mean you have wealth. You don't really have the cash necessarily," she said, citing the example of retirees on fixed incomes. "Yes, their property has increased in value. That doesn't mean their ability to pay has increased in value."

The big-ticket item on this year's "repeal and reform" list is state court expenses. Washington County will spend about $3.3 million for court services at the Government Center in Stillwater. Most of that pays for Sheriff's Office deputies who provide security and for the building's operation.

"I'm not saying state courts shouldn't use our buildings, but why don't they pay rent?" O'Rourke said. "We charge rent to every one of our other departments, community services, corrections. Everyone pays rent so we see the true cost of providing services in those budgets."

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037