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Autumn Lehrke Viewpoint: 2014 county budget -- cost drivers and impact

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 and libraries, administer elections, provide prosecution, protect public health and offer public safety protection. Much of what we do is required because of state and federal mandates. When these mandates are not fully funded, 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 cost shifts from the state level that are increasing costs to counties. These include increases of $60,000 for pensions for sheriff's personnel, $80,000 to treat individuals at the Anoka and St. Peter regional treatment centers, and $55,000 for administering no excuse absentee voting. 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 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 Branch library on Sundays during the school year. Lastly, I have been a strong advocate for increased and ongoing 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. Lastly, evaluating the county's tax rate and tax impact is critical.

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 0.66 percent, but leads to a reduction in the county tax rate of more than 4 percent due to the growth in the property tax base.

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 employees trained in LEAN. This ensures the organization will continually seek out opportunities to increase efficiencies and reduce waste.

Thank you for the opportunity to serve you. Please let me know if you have any comments or concerns regarding the budget before final approval in December.

Lehrke represents south Washington County communities on the Washington County Board.