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Levy rates below average

Woodbury and Washington County like to compare themselves to surrounding cities and counties.

They are below average in one area - and bragging about it.

As they prepare to set property tax rates for next year, a state report shows Woodbury and Washington County plan smaller-than-average tax increases.

Woodbury is considering a 3.2 percent levy hike to help fund 2010 operations. Washington County plans a 1.9 percent levy increase.

By contrast, the 2010 average county levy increase is 3.2 percent and for cities it's 5.4 percent. Those estimates came in a recent Minnesota Revenue Department analysis that showed levy increases generally have declined for three years.

The state's top tax official said a property tax cap pushed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty helped to keep increases in check.

"It's clear that the property tax cap has imposed some fiscal discipline on local government spending, even after many jurisdictions experienced reductions in local government aid this year," said Revenue Commissioner Ward Einess, a Pawlenty appointee.

But Woodbury and Washington County officials say the state levy cap has no bearing on their tax decisions. Rather, program costs and the economic recession influence their ledgers.

Property cap for 'validation'

The state limit on property tax increases is not a factor locally, Washington County Commissioner Lisa Weik said, adding that state officials may tout the property tax cap to "validate their effectiveness."

"We don't need micromanaging by the state of Minnesota," she said.

Board Chair Myra Peterson of Cottage Grove said commissioners have more restrictive policies than the state.

"It might be (a factor) for some counties, but for ours it wasn't," Peterson said of the state cap.

The levy limit, in law since 2008, caps property tax increases for cities and counties of at least 2,500 people. There are exceptions, including for public safety spending.

Washington County proposes a $144.3 million operating budget for next year, down slightly from current spending. The 1.9 percent levy increase is split - a 1 percent hike will allow the county to borrow $10 million for the voter-approved Land and Water Legacy program. The remaining 0.9 percent levy increase will go toward the operating budget.

The levy is set to increase, but the effect on a home valued at $250,000 would be a $22 drop in the county portion of the property tax bill.

Woodbury officials, too, say they make budget decisions independent of a state tax cap.

"That limit never came into play when deciding how much to increase," city finance director Tim Johnson said. "I don't think the state can take credit for the (city) council's decision. I think that they're reaching."

Woodbury's proposed levy hike of 3.2 percent is just one-third of what it could be under the state law, Johnson said.

Woodbury is considering a $25.97 million operating budget for next year. The property tax levy would collect $19.8 million, with fees and other revenue making up the remaining $6 million.

Public can weigh in

Residents will have a final opportunity next week to influence local government taxing and spending decisions for 2010. Public hearings on the proposed budgets, which replace "truth-in-taxation" meetings held in past years, will be Dec. 8 for Washington County and Dec. 9 for Woodbury.

But those public hearings, known for sparse attendance, may have little influence on tax decisions.

Peterson, the board chair, said the county budget and levy plan will "not really" change before it is finalized Dec. 15.

Budget planning has taken months and involved a number of public meetings, she said.

In Woodbury, city council members take public comments serious, said Johnson, the finance director, but he has not seen a city budget altered as a result of citizen comments at the December public hearing.

• The city of Woodbury's public hearing on the 2010 proposed budget will be Dec. 9 at City Hall. City council members are expected to vote on a final budget plan that night.

Washington County scheduled its public hearing on 2010 levy and budget plans for 6 p.m. Dec. 8. The County Board is set to vote on a finalized budget Dec. 15.