The Washington County budget funds a diverse set of county services, from roads and bridges to safety net services for elderly and disabled residents. We operate parks, libraries, administer elections, provide prosecution, protect public health and offer public safety protection to our communities.
Much of what we do is required because of state and federal mandates. Not all mandates are bad, but if state and federal funding is not provided with the mandates, the cost of providing those services is shifted to county property taxes.
The 2014 budget includes spending increases we have very little control over. Counties are required to implement the federal Affordable Care Act and the new staff needed is increasing our budget by $500,000. This cost is partially offset by federal funds; however, $125,000 is still being passed on to county property taxpayers.
There are a other changes on the state level that are increasing costs to counties. The county’s pension costs for Sheriff’s Office personnel is increasing by $60,000. Our share of the costs to treat individuals at the Anoka and St. Peter regional treatments centers was increased to the tune of $80,000. And new requirements allowing no-excuse absentee voting will cost the county nearly $55,000. These are just a few examples of the cost increases that drive the county budget.
Another significant budget driver is the cost for our employees. We are a service organization and those services are provided by our employees. We are just starting the bargaining process for 2014 and beyond, and the budget includes funds for the anticipated contract settlements. Furthermore, the technology needed to manage our human resources is another large budget expenditure. It is embarrassing to admit that a government organization with more than 1,100 employees is tracking union benefits and step pay increases on index cards. We need a Human Resources information system to manage our employee’s records in a profoundly more efficient way.
Throughout this budget cycle, I have advocated for a number of changes that are included in the 2014 budget. A top priority of mine is reversing the trend of crumbling county roads. As a result, I have advocated for increased road project and maintenance funding. I am happy to report that the 2014 budget includes an additional $1.2 million for pavement preservation projects. In addition, the budget provides funds to reopen the Park Grove library in Cottage Grove on Sundays during the school year. Lastly, I have been a strong advocate for increased and on-going funding for 4-H.
There are a number of factors that I carefully consider when reviewing the budget. I make sure the service we are providing is a core or mandated service. I also examine overall spending and focus on areas where process improvements might be needed to cut costs. Evaluating the county’s tax rate and tax impact is crucial. Ultimately, the factor that I weigh most heavily is the actual tax impact our levy decisions have on taxpayers.
Our tax rate is affected both by the levy decision, and the change in the county’s property tax base. We have been a responsible board and we have not raised the levy over the last few years during the Great Recession. We held the levy flat in 2011 and 2013, and reduced it in 2012. The 2014 preliminary levy raises the levy by .66 percent, but leads to a reduction in the county tax rate of more than 4 percent due to the growth in the property tax base. As mentioned earlier, the single most important dynamic I consider is the actual tax impact the levy has on individual property owners.
Under the proposed 2014 budget and levy, most residential property owners will pay less in county property taxes than they did in 2013. One of the ways we have stretched the public’s tax dollars further the last couple years is implementing LEAN principles throughout the county. We currently have more than 200 county employees trained in LEAN. Having LEAN-trained employees ensures the organization will continually seek out opportunities to increase efficiencies and reduce waste.
The County Board set its proposed property tax levy for 2014 on Tuesday. The proposed levy is the maximum amount and can only be decreased in December when the board votes on the final budget and property tax levy. The county board will hold a Dec. 3 budget review hearing and adopt the final budget on Dec. 17. I encourage residents to review the proposed tax notices mailed in November and let your local elected officials know if you have concerns.
Thank you for the opportunity to serve you.
Washington County Commissioner Autumn Lehrke represents District 4 and she is vice-chairman of the Board of Commissioners.