Column by Lisa Weik
Every year at this time, Washington County commissioners leave behind the glories of a Minnesota summer to think to next winter—January, that is, when the county’s new budget goes into effect.
This year is no different, as the Washington County Board is now planning the 2014 budget.
The five-member county board is committed to holding the line on spending during preparation of the proposed budget, while promoting economic development from strategic planning.
Commissioners recognize the needs of a rapidly growing county, and are responding to citizens that value robust services in county parks, libraries, and roads, while maintaining a vital safety net for our most vulnerable residents. Consistent with outcomes over the past three years, county property tax rates are proposed to decline for the average homeowner next year.
After weathering the storm of the recession, we have positive signs to point to in our county. Investment in new homes and businesses is making a robust comeback, and, while the county’s population continued to increase during the recession, growth is picking up more rapidly each year.
At the same time, Washington County has an updated resource to use as we continue crafting the budget—results of a 2013 residential survey, conducted countywide, which provide interesting information about the priorities of residents.
Findings show citizens want county libraries open when they are not at work or attending school, and we are able to respond to that request. During the academic year, not only will the R.H. Stafford Library be open on Sunday afternoons, but the Cottage Grove-Park Grove library, and Forest Lake-Hardwood Creek library, are proposed to reopen on Sunday.
And to expand service hours for senior adults, and job seekers needing access to public computers, I strongly support Sunday hours year-round at the largest library branches.
Residents have also voiced concerns about public safety.
As a result, more patrol deputies are proposed for county parks, along with corrections staff, a prosecuting attorney and upgrades to the 911 system.
County government in Minnesota can be obscure. Our work is not as visible as that of the state, cities, or school boards. Because survey findings revealed the county’s biannual newsletter, Staying In Touch, is the main source of information about county services, I support distribution of a new third edition.
Like you, I believe that the future of our county depends on a great transportation system.
Results of recent changes in state law will provide additional dedicated funds from the wheelage tax that will be devoted to upgrading county roads in need of repair. We propose using this increased funding source to eliminate use of county property taxes for roads.
The board is also considering additional levy dollars in 2014 to support the voter-approved Land and Water Legacy program that is designed to protect groundwater and preserve the county’s open space.
The residential survey found that citizens cherish the rural feel and open spaces in Washington County, but worry about protecting ground water.
The county Land and Water Legacy program thus far has helped protect 231 acres from development. In Woodbury alone, and in partnership with city leaders, the Dale Woods parcel and land around La Lake have been protected with the program.
The county provides safety net services to citizens still struggling from the effects of the recession, thankfully there are signs that those needs are lessening; while the number of health care and food support cases continue to increase, they are growing at a lower rate than occurred at the height of the recession.
My district also values programming offered by the University of Minnesota, Extension services for 4-H youth participating in community clubs and I support 2014 funding from reserves, consistent with current practice.
From the recent Census, we know that Washington County is home to 240,000 people, including Woodbury, which is currently the 10th largest city in the state.
To reflect the needs of anticipated growth, and incorporating results of the residential survey, the recommended budget for next year has a property tax levy of $86.7 million, a 0.66 percent increase from 2013, with an anticipated decrease in the county portion of the property tax rate for the typical homeowner.
The levy is part of a $147.4 million county operating budget and a $23.1 million capital expenditures budget.
I have been fortunate to serve this year as Chair of the County Board, and Chair of the Washington County Finance Committee.
I’ve also received a new appointment to an International Economic Development Task Force, bringing the voice of my district and county directly to the national level.
Members of the county board will review budget details through the fall, and receive public comment formally at a hearing Dec. 3.
Residents are invited to ask questions or offer comments on the draft budget at any time during the budget process, which will be complete in December.
—Lisa Weik, Woodbury, Washington County commissioner