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County budget shows slight increase in levy

The 2014 Washington County budget is taking shape, including the restoration of Sunday hours at Cottage Grove's Park Grove Library during the school year.

The county is also working to upgrade the 911 computer and communications center phone system, an expense that will be covered in next year's budget.

Despite the changes and addition of staff due to Affordable Care Act mandates, the property tax levy is estimated to increase by less than 1 percent.

County Board commissioners reviewed preliminary numbers last week during a presentation where administrators said the average value homeowners will likely see a decrease on their county property taxes.

Some of the key elements in the budget include state legislative changes, debt service funding, service demands from a growing population and funding for road projects.

Although the state set the levy limit at a 1.2 percent increase, the county predicts an increase of 0.66 percent, or $570,000, said Deputy Administrator Kevin Corbid. The total net tax levy is estimated at $85.7 million.

More than half of the county's operating budget is comprised of employee wages and benefits, at 61 percent.

The county has not begun labor negotiations, however, it is anticipated that community service cases will increase due to the new federal health care law, along with food support cases that have been on the rise since the start of the recession, meaning new hires are in the works.

Non-levy revenues at $85 million, an increase of roughly 6 percent from last year because of additional federal and state dollars, will help pay for capital projects and new employees, according to the preliminary budget.

The county's 2013 mid-year position changes in the sheriff's department, public health, and the library system will slightly affect the 2014 budget as well.

"The new costs were minimal," Corbid said.

The county recently approved 10 new positions, which according to the 2014 budget, will be funded in part by $540,000 from the levy and $108,000 from non-levy dollars.

The county strives to keep the employee-to-resident ratio in the 4.5 employees per 1,000 range, and it's recommending 4.6 employees per 1,000 for next year's budget.

Another key initiative in the budget is the restoration of Sunday hours at Forest Lake's Hardwood Creek Library and Park Grove Library in Cottage Grove during the school year.

Hours cut were a concern among residents of the county, when area libraries, including Woodbury's R.H. Stafford Library, suffered from budget cuts last year.

Sunday and Monday hours were restored in Woodbury when the county moved some funds around. The 2014 budget is expected to restore hours in the neighboring community libraries.

Additionally, the county plans to inject $100,000 one-time funding to pay for the increased demand in digital books, audiobooks and other electronic materials.

One other key component is the additional $1 million the county will receive from the wheelage tax increase passed by the Legislature this year.

The measure raises tab renewal taxes from $5 to $10 starting next year, which will then add up to $2 million annually for Washington County to use to fix crumbling roads.

County officials were pleased with the preliminary budget, especially since the county is growing.

"This is an outstanding budget that's being brought forward," Commissioner Gary Kriesel said, noting that it's a large document that "didn't come easy."

Commissioner Autumn Lehrke said she was pleasantly surprised to see all the different expenses fit into the budget without burdening taxpayers.

"I was really happy to see roads are a priority," she said, adding that wheelage tax dollars are a step in the right direction with a $10 user fee.

Tax base changes take taxable market value into consideration. Corbid said a median-value home in Washington County is seeing a 2.4 percent increase.

"For the first time in a number of years, the tax base is growing in Washington County," he said.

A home valued at $207,000 in Washington County will see a $4 decrease in property taxes, according to the preliminary budget.

The county is only halfway through the budget process, though, and a few numbers may change slightly, Corbid said.

The county will set the preliminary levy Sept. 10, which will be the maximum allowed levy prior to adopting the final budget in December.

A hearing is set for Dec. 3 where the budget will be presented to the public. The county will adopt the 2014 final levy and budget Dec. 17.

Budget highlights:

-Operating expenditures, not including capital and debt: $147.4 million.

-Capital expenditures: $23.1 million

-Debt service increase of 5 percent: $570,000. Allows for large cost items to be built without property tax spikes.

-Increase for police retirement fund: $60,000.

-Increase in county share at St. Peter and Anoka Regional Treatment Centers: $80,000.

-Day training and habilitation cost increase: $12,700.

-No-excuse absentee voting mandate: $54,000.

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.