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Any increase in violent crime in Washington County would push prosecutors past the breaking point, County Attorney Doug Johnson told commissioners during a budget presentation Tuesday.

"If we had the same number of murder cases as other counties, that's all my staff would be doing," said Johnson, who warned that a combination of funding and staff reductions has "maxed out" his staff.

This year, Washington County has had only one homicide, which occurred this month in Stillwater, Johnson said. But his staff of 20 attorneys, which includes him, also will handle more than 1,729 child support actions this year, nearly 600 contract reviews and hundreds of other civil cases, he said.

The average time spent in charging criminal cases has grown from 29 days in 2008 to 45 days this year, he said. The county attorney's office lost two legal assistants this year and also the longtime chief of the criminal division, Bob Molstad, who retired, Johnson said.

"Kind of a glum story I've given you. I think it's realistic," said Johnson, who plans to retire himself when his term ends in December 2010.

Myra Peterson, who chairs the County Board, said that unfunded state mandates and commissioners' determination not to further burden taxpayers mean tougher times in all county departments.

"The unfortunate issue is this isn't unique to the county attorney's office," she said.

Washington County serves 11,021 residents per attorney, Johnson said. But Dakota County, which has 39 attorneys, serves 8,308 residents per attorney and Anoka County serves 9,836 resident per attorney with 39 attorneys, he said.

"The message I have to give you is that we're maxed out," he told commissioners.

In other business:

• Disagreement over whether Washington County should fund the Housing and Redevelopment Authority continued. Two commissioners, Lisa Weik and Bill Pulkrabek, have expressed interest in eventually ending the county levy for HRA, which is proposed for next year at $3.3 million.

"I don't have any problems with the way they operate," Pulkrabek said after a budget presentation by Barbara Dacy, the county's HRA executive director. "I just fundamentally disagree with their existence."

That prompted a retort from Commissioner Gary Kriesel. "A lot of people in these rental units are friends, neighbors, family," he said.

Commissioner Dennis Hegberg, who represents the county on the HRA board, said residents can find themselves in need of affordable housing in times of catastrophic illness, job losses and other significant life changes.

"As a county we have to help and deal with those problems because that's how they get homeless real quick," he said of those residents.

Tom Triplett of Scandia, who chairs the HRA board, said the number of county residents who spend more than 30 percent of their monthly income on housing has escalated sharply since 2000.

"It's not only an issue for poor people, it's a growing issue for our senior citizens," he said.

•Commissioners voted unanimously in support of three county resolutions to secure state grants to buy private land near the St. Croix River. If purchased, the land would be preserved against development as part of the county's Land and Water Legacy program.

The county was unsuccessful recently in requesting a $3 million state conservation grant for the same purpose.

Kevin Giles • 612-673-4432