Understanding How We Got Here
– County Budget and Property Tax Levy
COOK COUNTY, MINNESOTA - February 11, 2019 (LSN) Each year, the Cook County Board of Commissioners sets the direction and tone for county government through the budgeting process. Each yearly budget allocates resources to provide required services; public safety, transportation, public health and human services and other general government functions like land services and record services. The budgetsetting process involves allocating limited resources among competing service priorities. There are never enough resources to do everything everyone thinks the county should do. And many of the County’s programs and services are mandated by state or federal authorities.
There has been a significant amount of change in the Cook County budget over the last five years and a corresponding amount of conversation about those changes. It is important to understand both what has happened and why it has happened. Understandably, the main focus has been on the increase in property taxes.
Need for Services and Associated Costs The increase in the size of the county budget has primarily been affected by two components: an increase in the cost of providing local services and the increased need for services in our community. The cost of providing services has increased faster than many other costs in Cook County, especially in the areas of road maintenance, construction and purchased services. Because of our location, road and construction projects are costing approximately 30% more to deliver in Cook County than in other parts of the state.
Staffing is another factor in the increased cost. While County staffing was relatively stable from 2002 to 2014, approximately 12 new positions have been added since then, including seven new employees in Public Health & Human Services, two custodial positions, two positions in the Sheriff’s Office and two positions in Land Services/Recycling. These positions have been added to meet increasing demands for services and to comply with program guidelines.
The years 2012-2015 saw increased budgeted expenditures without corresponding increases in the property tax levy to cover the cost. In four years, expenditures increased by $2.7 million, but the levy increased only $629,000. County fund balances were used to make up the difference: In 2015 alone, the County spent more than $1.5 million dollars of savings (fund balances) to cover the budget. If Cook County had continued to spend fund balances at $1.5 million/year in 2016-2018, the County would have had insufficient funds to pay its 2019 bills until the May 2019 tax collections came in.
Since 2016, the County Board has moved away from the use of fund balances to make up for shortages in current tax collections. The Board recognizes that a healthy fund balance is critical in maintaining a good credit rating. It also knows well that our fund balances are contingent upon state and federal
programs that are beyond the Board’s control. The Board therefore has grown cautious about using fund balances to make up the difference when County tax collections fall short of county expenses.
In 2019, the County was able to propose a balanced budget with approximately $500,000 increase in both expenses and levy. The average (County portion of tax statement only) Cook County tax bill is approximately $1,300, which breaks down to about $100 per month for public safety, transportation, human services and all other county services.
Public Engagement All these changes have residents talking, and rightly so. It is important that people be able to participate in their own governance through their elected officials. Know who your Commissioner is and make sure they know how you feel on important issues. Understand that your position might not be the only point of view on the topic. The County is working to continually improve access to data and engage citizens.
Recent data requests have resulted in changes to how the County is going to provide access to information. Employment contracts and wage scales for County workers will be posted on the County website. Monthly budget details will become a regular part of Board Meeting materials. Up to this point, financial updates were provided quarterly. A public engagement section of the County website is being developed to consolidate information and better communicate public engagement opportunities.
We need all community voices to be heard in our effort to set the right priorities for the use of the County’s resources and in deciding how large a burden local taxpayers should bear in paying for those services.
By: Jeff Cadwell,
Cook County Administrato
County Connections is a column on timely topics and service information from your Cook County government. Cook County – Supporting community through quality public service.