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Monday, April 20, 2015

County Debt Tripled in the Last Seven Years, the Board Undeterred: Budget Passes

From December 2013:
Comment on Facebook article: County Debt Tripled in the Last Seven Years, the Board Undeterred: Budget Passes

December 17th was the County Hearing on the 2015 to 2018 Capital Improvement Plan.

The plan sets out major county spending for the next five years. Spending includes money for  County Land, Buildings, Equipment, Infrastructure, and major road projects.

In the last seven years the county has experienced growth. 
The population has increased 8% 
(p.133);
County Government revenue grew a fair 10% 
(p.122)  ;  
County property taxes have only increased on average 2% a year (2006:  and
2012: ) ;
Even the number of County employees have remained stable 
Yet, what took me the longest time to understand was why the bond debt is up to $167 million. Triple the $54 million in 2006. (more on that later)  

The details of the bond history in the county reports mostly consist of "refunding prior issues". So I'd come to county board meetings speaking about what I thought was wasteful spending and adding to the debt.
(p.51) 

Come to find out much of this spending is out of General budget dollars or billed to the state or feds. What's left must be budgeted and items in the General budget can't be put on our county debt (a good thing).  

Yet since 2006 the bond debt has tripled from $54 to $167 million. I know, it's huge... and this is all posted in the 2012 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, page 130 to be exact (see pic 2):


 What's at the root of this debt is Capital Improvement Projects.

First thing you may think is "surely our roads are seeing massive improvements"; however, from the 2012 performance Measures & Indicators Report we see a sharp 6% down trend in the average pavement condition index over this last seven year period (see pic 3). 

As I've said in past county board meetings I believe we're spending too much money on a few of these road projects. Not with the road it's self; however adding six foot wide paths on both sides (CR13 and 19); labor intensive stone retaining walls (CR19); set up for landscaped center dividers (CR13, 19, 16 and others); brick laid center dividers (CR16); and fully landscaped shoulders. Costing tax payers millions of dollars per mile! 

CR19, 20, and 22 project: about 2 miles: $9.1 million dollars ($4.1 million is county's share)
CR 13 project: about 2 miles: $6.7 million
(Bid awarded to Hardrives inc on the July 6, 2010 county board meeting there is no digital record)
That's an average of $3.5 million dollars a mile! (see pic)
We could be doing more road for our money, we know how. In 2013 we: 
completely repaved 2 miles of CR4a for just $720,000; 
completely repaved 6 miles of CR7 for just $2.01 million; 
completely repaved 3 miles of CR9 for just $1.07 million. 
That's an average of only $351,000 a mile. 

One could argue " but, those rural roads don't have sewer, water, and sanitary lines." Fine. The city of Woodbury in 2013 (in short) did " removal and replacement of damaged curb and gutter, minor storm sewer, sanitary sewer, and water main repairs, storm water quality improvements and pavement removal and replacement" to: 
2 miles of Glen road for $1.4 million;
2 miles of roads in "Rolling acres" for $1.2 million;
2.5 miles of roads in "Woodland Hills and Victoria Place" for $1.1 million.
That's an average of only $580,000 mile to: repair or replace damaged roads, curbs, gutters, and storm, sewer, and water mains. (see pic 4)

At the Dec 17th public hearing commissioner Fran Miron stated "we had a lot of discussion this last year with respect to the down trend in pavement management. In fact Washington County was very instrumental in supporting the wheelage tax that brings in addition revenue now to the county." 

I live on CR15 and the $12.5 million dollar proposed renovation in the CIP for the road I feel it is also excessive. The current landscaped center near 36 dies every year from the salted roads, half the trees are dead, and I hardly see anyone walk along the paths. Whatever happened to a road being a road? 

However, the real culprit seems to be Government building expansions for itself. Something I can understand the need for the space; but the extent and frequency of such projects is leaving us in massive debt. We have this $80 million dollar expansion to government center in 2007, everything about this building is crazy nice. But now the the law library needs a new $340,000 curtain wall? 
(p. 66)

The biggest project proposed is the $17.5 million dollar Public Works North Maintenance Shop Improvement. I asked Wayne Sandberg, Deputy Public Works Director for more details on the plan. However he forwarded my request to the Assistant County Attorney Rick Hodsdon to file a data practice act. Mr Hodsdon said my question to see "a breakdown on the cost for the expansion" was too general and "editorial in nature." So I e-mailed the Public Works Director Don Theisen to ask for any info he might have on the project and I didn't get a response from him. I did get a second e-mail from the County Attorney stating he has to be the primary contact and I'd have to come in to his office to review the plans.
Full story: 

Public Shut Out on why Public Works Building is over $20 million dollars


Long story short, I don't see why refurbishing and doubling the 58,000 sq foot space couldn't be done for just over a million. Pour a slab and put in a heated pull barn like most government maintenance shops are.... Tear down the old 1960s shop and double it for $2 million wouldn't be irresponsible. Generous estimates for a pull barn or even a steel building 50,000 sq feet is less than $500,0000.  That's using buildingsguide.com estimator for $7 sq/ft +20% for doors, windows, etc. and 10% for labor. That leaves an extra $500,000 to pour a slab, insulate, heat, and electrify, etc. It'd be easier to accurately review the plan once the plan goes public.
 http://www.buildingsguide.com/faq/what-square-foot-cost-steel-building

I asked the board if they realized this $17.5 million dollar estimate is same cost estimate to build the twice as large 90,000 sq foot Bielenberg sports center. That cost includes the building and the indoor field, 200 seat restaurant, splash pad, ice rink, 18 outdoor fields, and more!
Woodbury-city-council-bypass-voters-to-fund-bielenberg-sports-center

All five commissioners responded by blasting me for suggesting the shop doesn't need to be replaced. However, I never stated the shop doesn't need the improvement. I was clearly trying to suggest rough estimates suggest such a building could be built for up to 1/8th cost.

Nevertheless, the fact I can't object to the specific excessive costs in this $17.5 million dollar project due to a small number of resistant county heads is a revelation on the greater problem.

We have County projects such as this one and others like the Red Rock Corridor: running their own requests; conducting their own survey's and studies; interpreting them; and reporting the results to you who secure their funding.
Red rock corridor planners deceive the public to secure funding

I've asked the board three times why this conflict of interest continues and they do not answer: 
Some county heads resist tax payer requests to see the books

What we do have is $167 million in debt with this CIP proposing adding $37.5 million more to it and assurances from our county board they are running a fiscally responsible budget. Yet in just 2006 (est) Ramsey county, who now has double our property taxes (see pic), also had about $167 million in debt (p. 195 and subtract 2007 debt). Our current debt level shouldn't match a neighboring county's 2006 debt when they have twice our population. Yet our debt per capita is almost twice theirs  


The interest charges alone on our growing debt is $6.9 million/yr. We're going down a path that can only lead to more debt and most certainly tax increases for us to cover this spending. It's one thing to maintain our roads; It's quite another while doing it you up charge us for a bunch of aesthetics, six foot wide walking paths, fancy stone work, etc.

-Matt Behning
Stillwater, MN
www.fb.com/WCwatchdog

More to come on these excessive projects. Please contact our County County Commissioners and ask them to stop putting us in unsustainable debt. We can roll back the budgets on the projects and still provide the needed maintenance and repair to our infrastructure.

fran.miron@co.washington.mn.us 651-430-6211
ted.bearth@co.washington.mn.us 651-738-2425
gary.kriesel@co.washington.mn.us 651-430-6213
lisa.weik@co.washington.mn.us 651-430-6215
autumn.lehrke@co.washington.mn.us 651-430-6214