County budget hearing set tonight

After months of meetings, number crunching and adjustments, Washington County residents finally get their chance tonight to weigh in on the county’s proposed 2013 budget and tax levy.

The Board of Commissioners hold a 6 p.m. Public hearing on a proposed budget that includes more than $166.6 million in levy and non-levy revenue and more than $160 million in operating and capital spending. The hearing is in the fifth-floor boardroom at the Government Center in Stillwater.

State law requires counties to conduct budget and levy public hearings after Nov. 24 and not before 6 p.m.

The public can comment on a proposed 2013 county budget with half of the county’s revenue, $86.1 million, generated by the county’s tax levy, another $80.1 million from non-levy revenues and $438,400 from the LWLP levy. Each revenue category represents no change from 2012.

The bulk of the county’s 2013 expenses, $142.8 million, are operating expenditures excluding capital and debt. That is a 2.1 percent increase over 2012 expenditures. The county’s 2013 capital expenditures of $18.3 million represent a 13 percent decrease from 2012.

County administrators said the proposed 2013 budget addresses a continued demand for safety net services; provides debt service funds; restores Washington County Library hours cut at the start of the year, provides for election equipment costs and technology needed to increase efficiency and residential placement costs.

Factors affecting the county’s 2013 budget include the continuing reduction in the median value of homes, uncertainty in state aid from the legislature, the addition of five new community services positions to handle a rise in residents seeking assistance and reopening Washington County Library branches on Mondays and the R.H. Stafford branch on Sundays.

According to figures from the Property Records and Taxpayer Services Department, many homeowners will see lower county property tax bills due to the continued drop in median home values.

The owner of a home with a $150,000 market value who paid $451 in county property tax last year will pay $435 in 2013. A house valued at $200,000 will see a $622 tax bill in 2013, compared to $642 in 2012. A $250,000 home sees a drop in its county property tax to $809 next year compared to $832 in 2012. And a $500,000 home has a $1,781 tax bill in 2013, compared $1,719 in 2012.

However, PRTS officials said tax bills on commercial and industrial property and apartments will rise in 2013 as those properties pick up more of the tax burden in the wake of reduced median home values.

Another revenue uncertainty is state aid. Since 2009, the county has seen its state aid remain relatively flat. The 2013 budget projects the county receiving $6.8 million of state aid.

The county proposes using additional funds for one-time expenses of pavement preservation, election vote counting machines and additional placement costs. But county administrators expect state budget deficit projections to continue and the county will likely not receive its certified amount of program aid.

Citing a substantial rise in both food support and health care cases from 2008 to 2012, the county proposes adding two eligibility specialists in the economic support division, two social workers and a family service worker in the mental health division.

According to county figures, the county saw health care cases rise from 6,939 in 2008 to 9,446 last year and food support cases go from 2,056 in 2008 to 4,466 in 2012. County officials say adding the five workers should help reduce speed up processing of applications.

The board also plans to spend $284,000 to reopen all WCL branches on Mondays and the Stafford branch on Sundays during the school year one year after all county-run libraries were closed Mondays and Tuesdays when the city of Lake Elmo left the WCL and took its $250,000 portion of the library levy to start a city-run library.

Commissioners are scheduled to vote on the 2013 budget and county, Washington County Regional Rail Authority and Housing and Redevelopment Authority tax levies. State law allows the County Board to set levies lower than the proposed amounts set in September, but the levies cannot be increased. Tax statements are mailed to property owners at the end of March.