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The 2017 budget: More than numbers, it's about people

Kevin Z. Gray

St. Louis County's annual budget reflects a lot of work with numbers. But it also reflects a lot of work with people. In 2017, that will be more true than ever.

Certainly we have equipment costs, such as snow plows and vehicles in public works, technology costs for our 911 emergency communications center and County Land Explorer and maintenance costs for our buildings, roads and bridges. The budget covers these and all core services our citizens expect. But most notable in the 2017 budget is an increased investment in people — especially in protecting children and helping families.

Next Tuesday, the County Board will approve the final budget for 2017, and with it, the property tax levy — the roughly one-third of the budget that comes from property taxes. Earlier this fall, the board approved an 8.5 percent preliminary levy, which means the final levy could be less than that amount, but not more. It's an increase none of us wish was needed, but is in response to needs that we simply cannot ignore.

We have more children and families living in poverty, and the stress that accompanies it; more people struggling with addictions to opioids and methamphetamine. More people struggling with mental health issues. We are investing in proactive efforts to address the rising instances of substance abuse and addiction; as well as finding better ways to help the growing number of people with mental health issues. We need to help, not just because it's the right thing to do for these people, our neighbors. But also because often there are innocent children caught in the midst of their parents' struggles.

We are investing in more staff for child protective services. This reduces our social workers' caseloads, giving them more time to work with children and families and make a meaningful difference. The number of children in out-of-home placements remains at an all-time high. A full 10 percent of our tax levy is now needed to cover out-of-home placement costs.

The 2017 budget also reflects a nationwide theme, escalating health-care costs for employees. The county's health insurance fund declined significantly this past year, and we are taking necessary steps to strengthen it. This, too, is an investment in people — the professional employees who work hard to serve you.

A third major theme in the budget is that it reflects less state support. The last two legislative sessions have ended with major bills unfinished. The lack of agreement between the governor and Legislature on a tax bill cost St. Louis County an estimated $3 million in funding support. On top of that, there are increased reporting requirements for child protection services, and systems failures with MNsure that create tremendous additional burden on our staff, plus unfunded and underfunded mandates that affect our ability to serve our residents.

So there have certainly been challenges in crafting this budget to address needs, while sustaining our investment in public infrastructure and customer service systems. Likewise, I am proud we continue to take a long-term view of fiscal stability and protect the county's AA+ bond rating.

There is also this key context to share: Our property tax base has grown by almost 8 percent over the last two years. That's a near-perfect counterbalance to an 8.5 percent tax levy increase. So in terms of people and numbers, if you live in a Duluth home valued at $100,000, the county portion of your property taxes in 2017 will increase by just $3 compared to what you paid in 2015. Just an extra $3 to fund the services you expect, while providing additional help to neighbors in need.

As always, you can examine our budget for yourself online at stlouiscountymn.gov/budgetexplorer.

Kevin Z. Gray is the St. Louis County administrator.

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