Hennepin County will hire more than 100 new staffers in 2017 to bolster a massive overhaul of the county’s child protection system.
The new hires make up part of the increased costs in the county’s $1.9 billion budget for 2017 — second in size only to the state’s — which was approved Tuesday by the County Board. Other metro counties Tuesday also approved bigger budgets and higher property tax levies.
“I think this is really a ‘stepping-up’ budget, where the county is stepping up to do things that perhaps we thought the state should do,” County Board Chair Jan Callison said.
Hennepin’s budget will be partly funded by a property tax levy of $759.4 million — a $32.6 million increase, or 4.5 percent more, than this year’s levy. The owner of a median-priced suburban home of $256,000 will see a $10 bump in the county portion of their tax bill.
Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who cast the lone vote against the budget, said the County Board had failed to push staffers to hold the line on taxes.
“I fear that we are at a point now where the new normal or the new trend is ‘Well, we’ll increase property taxes at 5 percent again,’ ” he said.
While the tax levy is up, the 2017 budget actually is slightly lower. That’s because it includes Hennepin Health, the county’s care program, which expects a $97 million decrease and isn’t funded by property taxes.
But the budget did expand by $36 million from September, when the County Board first looked at the preliminary budget. Since then, the board agreed to hire more staffers — 370 in all next year — and added more money for capital projects, largely for roads.
About a third of the new staffers will work in the county’s child protection system. Officials this fall announced a $26 million, five-year plan to make the system more proactive and connect families to services before abuse occurs.
The child protection program added $13 million to the budget, which county leaders had hoped to help cover with $7 million from the state. But the county will use $5 million in contingency funds and $7 million in its fund balance while planning to lobby legislators for more help next session.
At Tuesday’s County Board meeting, Peter Zeftel of Minneapolis spoke against 275 layoffs planned at Hennepin County Medical Center.
“How many poor people are going to die because they’re denied medical care because of cuts?” said Zeftel, who added later that he’s a longtime patient and worries about longer wait times.
As reported by the Star Tribune, HCMC has a high share of patients who are covered by the state’s Medical Assistance program. “This was a difficult year financially,” CEO Jon Pryor told commissioners.
Hennepin Healthcare System (HHS), the corporate operator of HCMC and its clinics, forecasts a $20 million operating loss this year. While HHS operates independently, the county owns its physical property and provides it with an annual reimbursement amounting next year to $22 million, an increase of $4 million. The 2017 HHS budget will be $962 million.
Commissioners for Carver and Scott counties will vote on their budgets Dec. 20. Carver County’s proposed 2017 budget is about $123 million, to be financed in part with a property tax levy of $52 million, or a 2.8 percent increase. Scott County’s proposed budget includes a levy increase of $2.8 million, or 4.6 percent.
The Ramsey County Board on Tuesday approved a 2017 property tax levy of $292.5 million, a 2.8 percent increase, to help fund a $661 million budget in the second year of its biennial budget.
Officials have said that the bump upward is aimed at such targets as child protection and child support services; completion of a new Shoreview library with expanded hours; development of the Battle Creek Winter Recreation Area; and planning for three proposed transitways.
Commissioner Janice Rettman cast the only dissenting vote. “People with low incomes are seeing no increases but their cost of living is up and we are part of that,” she said.
Other commissioners said they did not feel the budget was out of line, given what other jurisdictions were doing. Said County Board Chair Victoria Reinhardt: “We base the budget on outcomes, which is not the average way of doing things in government, and I’m proud of what we do.”
Washington County commissioners approved a $95 million 2017 property tax levy, a 3.49 percent increase over 2016. However, many homeowners will see little or no change in their county property taxes in 2017 because the tax base has grown 3 percent over the previous year.
“This reflects a growing county, a diverse county, just keeping an eye on the future and being reasonable,” said Commissioner Karla Bigham.
Next year’s capital improvement budget includes more provision for trails, because “communities are telling us they want more,” County Engineer Wayne Sandberg said.
Dakota County commissioners approved a 2 percent levy increase for 2017, which allows the county to continue to have the lowest per capita tax rate in the state, County Manager Matt Smith said. The levy will fund about $133 million of the county’s total budget of $357 million.
A significant expense will be costs associated with hiring new employees, Smith said. The county plans to fill 29 new positions in 2017, including many jobs in human services to meet new state and federal mandates.
“The 2017 budget is good for taxpayers and yet leaves room for some added priorities of the board,” said Commissioner Nancy Schouweiler, who is retiring this month after 18 years on the board. “I feel I am leaving the county at a very strong level financially.”
The average homeowner will pay about $592 in property taxes on a house valued at $228,600, a hike of about $16.
Rising employee-related costs account for much of the 2.5 percent property tax levy increase in Anoka County’s 2017 budget, which was approved by commissioners on Dec. 2. The levy will cover about $125 million of the county’s $289 million budget.
“Most of the increase comes from costs we can’t contain,” including employee benefits like health care, said Budget Director Patti Hetrick.
Staff writers David Peterson, Kevin Giles, Erin Adler, Natalie Daher and Hannah Covington contributed to this story.