Column by Autumn Lehrke, District 4 Washington County commissioner and vice chair
The county budget funds a diverse set of county services, from county 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 along with the mandates, the cost of providing that service is shifted to county property taxes.
The 2014 budget includes spending increases that 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 Washington County property taxpayers.
There are a number of other changes on the state level that are increasing costs to counties. The county’s costs for pensions for our sheriff’s 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 driver in our budget is the cost for our employees.
We are a service organization and those services are provided by our employees. We are just beginning the bargaining process for 2014 and beyond, and the budget includes funding for the anticipated contract settlements.
Furthermore, the technology needed to manage our human resources is another large expenditure in our budget.
It is embarrassing to admit that a government organization with over 1,100 employees is tracking union benefits and step increases on recipe cards. We need a Human Resources Information System so that we can 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 budget.
A top priority of mine is reversing the trend of crumbling county roads. As a result, I have been advocating for increased funding for road projects and maintenance. I am happy to report that the 2014 budget includes an additional $1.2 million for pavement preservation projects.
In addition, the budget provides funding to reopen the Park Grove library 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 may 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, as well as 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%, but leads to a reduction in the county tax rate of more than 4% 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 been able stretch your tax dollars further over the last couple years is by implementing LEAN principles throughout the county. We currently have over 200 Washington County employees that are trained in LEAN. Having employees trained in LEAN principles 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, Sept. 10. 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 be holding a budget review hearing on December 3 and adopt the final budget on December 17.
I would encourage residents to review the proposed tax notices that are mailed in November and let your local elected officials know if you have concerns.
Thank you for the opportunity to serve you.
—Autumn Lehrke, Distrit 4 Washington County Commissioner and Vice Chair