County Board OKs ’13 levy, budget

Proposals hold line on taxes; have slight hike in expenditures

Some Washington County property owners could see a small drop in their county tax under a 2013 property tax levy and proposed budget adopted Tuesday by the Board of Commissioners.

Keeping with their practice the last three years, commissioners set an $86.523 million preliminary 2013 levy that is unchanged from 2012. The ’13 levy is made up of an $86.1 million county net levy and a $438,400 LWLP levy.

“This is the third straight year the levy has been flat or down slightly,” said Assistant County Administrator Kevin Corbid.

Under state law, the board was required to certify the 2013 tax levy by Saturday. The board adopts a final levy and budget in mid-December and that final levy can be lower than the figure certified Tuesday, but it cannot be higher.

The levy, combined with $80.3 million in non-levy revenue, gives the county more than $166.8 million in revenue in ’13. Corbid also reminded commissioners that the majority of county revenue now comes from the net levy, a trend that is unchanged since 2009.

“Nearly 50 percent reliance on the property tax levy continues,” he said.

The county expects to spend about $161.4 million next year; $142.9 million in operating and $18.5 million in capital expenses, according to Corbid.

“We are serving more people than in the past and we’re doing it with less money,” he said.

Corbid said ’13 operating expenses are up 2.2 percent from this year, due mainly to new labor contracts with employee groups; direct payments in human services areas; possible restoration of some Washington County Library hours cut this year; and one new position each in the Public Health and Environment and Public Works departments and five new positions in the Community Services Department.

The combination of a flat levy and declining real estate market values means many residential property owners could see slight decreases in their county tax bill. Corbid said a resident with a home valued at $250,000 who paid $832 in county taxes this year will see their tax bill drop $22 to $810 in ’13.

Another example Corbid cited is the estimated county portion of a resident’s property tax bill goes to $685 in ’13 on a home valued at $216,800 from $706 on the same home valued at $235,700 this year.

Another budget impact residents will see next year is a change in operating hours at some county offices. Corbid said the Stillwater Government Center and several other county buildings would be open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. starting Jan. 1.

But he stressed that hours at the county’s driver’s license centers and Environmental Center in Woodbury would remain unchanged.

Along with certifying the ’13 levy and adopting the proposed budget, commissioners also certified the ’13 levies of $574,800  for Regional Rail Authority; $3,332,236 Housing and Redevelopment Authority, a $574,800 RRA budget.

Although commissioners were satisfied with the levy and budget proposed by county administration, Commissioners Bill Pulkrabek and Autumn Lehrke sparked some debate when both said they were voting against the HRA levy.

Pulkrabek reiterated his opposition to the county being in the housing business, saying the marketplace should meet demand for low- to moderate-income housing. Lehrke said she would like the county to utilize more vouchers for housing.

But the board’s legal counsel, George Kuprian, warned that if the board rejected the HRA levy, the agency could not operate and the decision could affect the county’s bond rating.

“If you don’t approve it, HRA can’t operate. The state requires elected officials to approve their levy,” he said. “That would definitely affect your bond rating.”

Commissioners Gary Kriesel and Lisa Weik both said they were reluctant to oppose certifying the HRA levy without talking with HRA officials.

“At this point, I am not willing to go out on shaky legal ground,” Weik said. “Doing this now is a day late and a dollar short.”

“I don’t want to kneecap them on this,” Kriesel added. “We owe the HRA some due diligence.”

The board finally passed the HRA levy on a 3-2 vote. The remaining levy and budget issues all passed by 5-0 margins.

“All praise should go to our department heads and our employees. They were asked to do a lot more with a lot less resources,” Kriesel said.

“I do think we are adopting a responsible budget,” Weik added.