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Viewpoint: Legislature should recommit to county program aid

It may be safe to assume most Washington County residents have not heard of county program aid. Yet, it is important to take a glimpse into this key funding resource and learn how the Legislature's attention to this topic could reduce your property tax bill.

Property taxes have, and most likely will always be, the main source of revenue for county operations. As the administrative level of many state government programs, counties are responsible for roads, bridges and County State Aid Highways.

Did you know that a large majority of county spending is mandated by the state? Approximately 80 percent of Washington County's budget is mandated spending from the state or federal government. For example, when the state requires a county to provide essential services on its behalf — such as child protection or mental health services — but only provides a portion of the funds necessary to carry out the job, the county must divert its property tax revenue intended for local use to pay for the state's costs. Over time, counties' roles as administrators for state-created programs have grown larger and more complex.

The legislators who are responsible for creating new county requirements sometimes forget to include the necessary funding, leaving counties and their property tax payers footing the bill resulting in property tax increases.

Over a decade ago, Minnesota consolidated the funding for several of its mandated programs into a single program called county program aid, or CPA for short.

The CPA program was intended to cover the costs of state programs so that counties could reserve more of their property tax dollars for programs specific to the needs of their home communities. At the time, CPA totaled $205 million and was divided up among all 87 counties based on a variety of need and tax base factors. More importantly, however, the creation of CPA acted as a recognition of the vast number of duties, services and unfunded mandates that counties carry out on a day-to-day basis, and an acknowledgement that the state was responsible for shouldering some of the burden to alleviate property tax increases. Unfortunately, the amount of county program aid received by Washington County has not kept pace with the rising costs of the state-mandated services.

Aid amounts have been basically flat since 2014, while at the same time, the service demands on the county have increased from a growing and aging population that is accessing many of the state-mandated services and programs. The lack of state funding increases directly impacts the amount each of us pays in property taxes to the county.

This year the County Board is asking the Legislature to take a look at CPA and recommit to the program they have neglected to adequately fund for far too long. With the addition of new child protection mandates, mental health care cost shifts, future wetland buffer enforcement responsibilities, and the absence of necessary transportation funding, Washington County will once again be dealing with several unfunded or underfunded state regulations. CPA is a critical tool to help offset the underfunded costs of these state requirements and we need the Legislature to act.

Please feel free to contact me at 651-430-6214 or with any questions. Thank you for allowing me to be your Washington County commissioner.