Only a matter of time: State must provide more money to prevent property tax increases, county to tell legislators at annual meet and greet

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Washington County cannot continue to hold down property taxes if the state keeps requiring them to provide more programs and services without money to pay for them.

That's the message county commissioners and staff will convey to their state representatives and senators at the Washington County Legislative Reception Feb. 12.

It's nothing that legislators haven't heard before: the Unfunded Mandate Blues. In recent years, Minnesota has shifted more responsibility for health, welfare and law enforcement to the counties. But financial support, in the form of County Program Aid, continues to lag behind the rate of inflation.

County Commissioner Karla Bigham said she wants to impress the seriousness of the problem to those at the State Capitol.

"My hope is that they care how important it is to collaborate with them and how they directly impact the services that we provide, and that we are prudent with the tax dollars we receive, and as a growing county, it gets more and more difficult to fund services without County Program Aid."

In Washington County, nearly 80 percent of operating costs in the county budget pay for state and federal mandated programs, County Administrator Molly O'Rourke said. As the county population grows and the demands for services increase, the county must plug the gap with a larger percentage of property tax revenue.

"We would like less mandates or more money," O'Rourke said.

One unfunded mandate is the county's increased role in verifying eligibility for those who want to enroll in MNsure, the state-run health care exchange. The software on the MNsure system is so slow, they have hired additional staff to help process applications, O'Rourke said.

Other legislative priorities include:

• More money for safety net services such as mental health and welfare programs for the poor, sick and elderly as well as additional funding for jail and probation programs. Eighty-five percent of probation services in the state are delivered at the county level, according to Washington County officials. The funding could be provided by a state income or sales tax instead of property taxes. "Property tax is a very regressive form of taxation," O'Rourke said. "It's not based on your ability to pay, it's based on your perceived wealth."

• Funding for road construction and transitway development, including the Gold Line bus-rapid transit system that would run from St. Paul to Woodbury, and a feasibility study for a proposed interstates 94/494/694 interchange in Oakdale and Woodbury. State Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury, has been pushing for change at the accident-ridden interchange, and the first step to funding a solution is to commission a state study of the roads, she said. The measure passed in the Minnesota House of Representatives last year died when Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature failed to pass a bonding bill. "My No. 1 thing that I'm going to continue working on: transportation and safety improvement study and congestion relief for 494/694 and the I-94 interchange," Fenton said.

• More financial incentives for counties who exceed state regulations for processing solid waste. Unlike some counties who take their waste to a landfill, Washington and Ramsey counties process and recover materials through their recycling and energy center in Newport. "We would get additional state funding or the state might set up incentives for counties that aren't processing," O'Rourke said. "Some other countries aren't paying for the processing but they're able to do that because they're in a regional plan with us. They benefit from us doing the right thing."

• Funding for the Carnelian Creek Conservation Corridor proposal, which would preserve the natural state of more than 10 miles of shoreline on Terrapin, Mays and Clear lakes and 735 acres of forests, wetlands and grasslands that provide critical habitat in May Township.