Decisions loom as budget workshops end, county board set to approve preliminary levy Tuesday

The Washington County Board of Commissioners completed its review of 2013 department budget proposals Tuesday. Now, decisions loom for commissioners.

The last two department budgets reviewed by commissioners Tuesday were the Housing and Redevelopment Authority and the county board itself.

The proposed 2013 HRA budget contains a slight increase in revenue and expenditures, but no increase in the agency’s property tax levy, according to HRA Director Barbara Dacy.

Dacy told commissioners the HRA handled more than 500 rental assistance requests and provided foreclosure counseling to 2,400 homeowners, helping slightly more than 1,200 avoid forclosure.

“I really appreciate the 1,243 foreclosures averted,” said Commissioner Gary Kriesel. “That’s the evil part of this economy.”

Among the HRA’s 2013 projects is an affordable senior citizens housing complex at the former Picadilly Restaurant site in Mahtomedi, Dacy said. The need for affordable senior housing is rising as the county’s population ages, she added.

“Our senior properties have fairly long waiting lists,” she said.

One example Dacy cites is the Ramey-Johnson complex in Oak Park Heights, which has a waiting list of 100 to 150 names and a one-year wait.

“In terms of affordable senior housing, that’s a challenge,” she said. “There’s not enough necessary to meet that demand in 2020.”

Dacy cited the struggling economy as a major reason for the increase in senior housing applicants.

“We are seeing more seniors in our program because their retirement earnings have gone down,” she said.

County Administrator Molly O’Rourke said the proposed 2013 commission budget includes a slight increase in wages and benefits and funds for a transition to paperless delivery of board agendas and information packets.

O’Rourke added that the proposed commission budget also contains a $6,000 travel allowance for each commissioner.

Commissioners have until December to decide if they want to increase their salaries, O’Rourke said.

“You would have to formally vote on a salary increase,” she said.

The commission’s next step in the 2013 budget process is approval of the 2013 preliminary level at the Sept. 11 board meeting. Under state law, once commissioners set the preliminary levy, they cannot set a higher levy but can set a lower levy later this year.

Final approval of the 2013 county budget and tax levy is in December.

In other action Tuesday, commissioners unanimously approved a resolution backing HRA bonds that the agency is refinancing to receive significant debt service savings.

The action followed a public hearing conducted by the board on the HRA refinancing request.

The bonds being refinanced provided funds for the 40-unit Brick Pond development in Stillwater and 180-unit Woodland Park development in Cottage Grove.

Dacy said the HRA also proposes dropping two years off the bonds.

The HRA proposed refinancing the bonds after completing a strategic evaluation of its affording housing bond portfolio to maintain long-term affordable housing options for families and senior citizens, reduce HRA debt service costs and minimize pressure on the annual levy.