Many to see county taxes decrease

Despite first levy increase in four years, most Washington County property owners will pay less

 

Jonathan Young
Stillwater Gazette

More than half of property owners in Washington County can expect a decrease in county property taxes, despite a slight increase in the overall county levy.

The Washington County Board of Commissioners approved the final 2014 budget and tax levy Dec. 17. No members of the public addressed the board during a Dec. 3 hearing.

The county will collect about $87.7 million in property taxes in 2014, including about $1 million for the voter-approved Land and Water Legacy Program. This represents an increase of 0.66 percent in the county levy and a 0.72 percent increase in the levy for the legacy program.

The legacy program is a $20 million bond referendum to provide funds to protect the environment, purchase parkland, protect water quality and more. The county has spent the first $5 million in bonds and plans to issue another $5 million in bonds.

Officials say the county levy increase is the first in four years, after the county reduced the levy in 2012 and kept it flat in 2011 and 2013.

Although the total tax collected is rising, the additional burden is offset by growth in the county.

“For the first time in a number of years, the county’s tax base is growing again,” Deputy County Administrator Kevin Corbid said.

The value of new construction in 2013 was estimated at $237.5 million. With more property to share the burden, the county’s portion of many tax bills will go down.

“In total, about 53 percent of all property owners in the county are expected to experience a decrease in the county tax,” Corbid said.

Residential property values increased an average of 2.4 percent, according to Corbid, and a median-value home is now worth $207,000.

The owner of a median value home that increased in value by 2.4 percent will pay $626 in county taxes. That’s $4 less than in 2013.

Compared to the other six metro-area counties, Corbid said, Washington County’s tax levy per capita is “near the bottom” — it has the third-lowest per-capita levy. Hennepin County has the highest and Dakota County the lowest.

The county budget is also going up. The approved 2014 budget includes $148.2 million for operating costs, an increase of about 3.8 percent. Part of that increase is due to requirements of the federal Affordable Care Act and state requirements for MnCHOICES, a program that serves seniors and those with disabilities.

The budget includes money for 15.6 additional staff positions, but Corbid pointed out the county has been adding roughly 2,500 residents per year.

“Historically the county has employed about 4.5 employees per 1,000 residents,” he said. “With the increase in new positions … this measure increases slightly to just 4.6 employees per 1,000.”

He said the county has the second-lowest operating cost per capita compared to the other six metro-area counties. Dakota County has the lowest.

Increases in operating costs were partially offset by increased state aid to the county, as well as a state sales tax exemption for local governments.

Washington County spending on capital projects is set at $22.4 million, an increase of 22.7 percent. Much of that increase is going toward road improvements and isn’t funded by the property tax levy, Corbid said.

“The capital expenditure increase is a reflection of the board’s priority to provide additional funding for road projects through our state and federal aid, as well as the increase authorized by the Legislature in the county wheelage tax,” he said.

Key initiatives in the 2014 budget include increased library hours, even-year election costs, increased pavement preservation funding to resurface county roads, Sheriff’s Office fleet replacement, a mobile crime scene van and a 911 phone system update.

At a Dec. 12 meeting, commissioners set their 2014 salaries at $52,713, which is what the commissioners’ salaries have been since 2009.

The board also set salaries with 5 percent increases for Administrator Molly O’Rourke, Sheriff Bill Hutton, and Attorney Pete Orput.

The board unanimously approved the 2014 budget and levy. All praised the final outcome.

Board Chair Lisa Weik said the budget reflects priorities set by voters.

“This is one of the best budgets I’ve seen,” Commissioner Gary Kriesel said.

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