Board OKs 2013 county budget, levies

It took the Washington County Board of Commissioners about 15 minutes Tuesday to approve the county’s 2013 budget and tax levies after seven months of workshops and meetings with department heads.

Commissioners approved separate resolutions setting the 2013 property tax levy of $86.5 million; a $574,800 Regional Railroad Authority levy for ’13; a $3.3 million Housing and Redevelopment Authority levy for next year and a ’13 operating budget of more than $176.6 million.

The budget and levies were approved five days after the County Board held its state-mandated budget public hearing last Thursday.

Along with approving the budget and levies, commissioners also approved the county 2013-2017 Capital Improvement Plan following a brief public hearing Tuesday.

County Administrator Molly O’Rourke said the ’13 levy was flat for the third consecutive year. The county’s gross levy is more than $93.3 million. When the more than $6.8 million of anticipated state program aid is factored, the net levy is more than $86.5 million.

At last Thursday night’s public hearing, Assistant Administrator Kevin Corbid said about 70 percent of the county’s residential property taxpayers will see a lower county tax bill due mainly to a continued decline in home values. About 30 percent of residential property owners will see a tax increase.

Corbid said because of declining residential market values, commercial and industrial properties and apartments are picking up more of the county’s property tax burden.

Board Chairman Dennis Hegberg said that although he supported the ’13 budget and levies, he thought the levy should have been increased slightly.

“I think it should be a one percent increase because we’re looking at some health care funding,” he said. “But I will support it because in this uncertain economic time, it’s wise to be conservative.”

District 4 Commissioner Autumn Lehrke voiced concern about the HRA levy, noting that the agency saved more than $800,000 by refinancing bonds earlier this year, with that money added to the HRA’s $9.6 million fund balance.

Lehrke said she wanted to see those savings either returned to taxpayers or used for vouchers to provide housing to persons on the county’s waiting list.

“I do support the HRA, but I’m not going to support their budget today,” she said.

District 5 Commissioner Lisa Weik warned that board rejection of the HRA levy could put the county in a precarious financial position.

“If we’re not going to certify the HRA levy, we put the county at financial risk,” she said.

The HRA levy passed on a 3-2 vote, with Lehrke and District 2 Commissioner Bill Pulkrabek dissenting.

Prior to action on the ’13 budget and levies, the board held what turned out to be a short public hearing on the five-year CIP plan. Administration Budget Analyst Melinda Kirk said the CIP identifies projects and resources, with ’13 projects fully funded and projects with potential funding identified through 2015.

District 3 Commissioner Gary Kriesel urged the board to look at the county’s long-term plans for the Washington County Libraries system, especially Cottage Grove’s Park Grove branch.

“One of the concerns I have is the library is the library in Cottage Grove. In the future, we have to look at our library plan,” he said. “What are our libraries going to look like 10 years from now.”

Weik noted that much of the CIP funding addresses the county’s roads and bridges.

“Over the last 20 years, our traffic has doubled in the county,” she said.

Commissioners unanimously approved the CIP immediately after closing the public hearing.

In other action, commissioners:

n Meeting as the county Regional Railroad Authority, approved a nearly $250,000 contract with Stantec Consulting Services Inc., to finish the Red Rock Corridor alternatives analysis update.

Washington Public Works Planner Lyssa Leitner said Stantec was one of two companies considered for the work. The analysis is funded by a $200,000 federal grant and $50,000 from the RRC Commission budget.

Leitner said Stantec’s work includes re-evaluating commuter rail and new bus-rapid transit routes and updating ridership and costs, implement