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Commissoner's Report: County Board goes down to the wire in making 2004 budget cuts

Fri, Sep 5th, 2003
Posted in Features

It is not work that kills men; its worry. Worry is rust upon the blade.Henry Ward Beecher

Not business as usual, proclaimed Chairman Marc Prestby as painful deliberations continued at Tuesdays county board meeting with an $800,000 budget shortfall looming over the countys head. A September 15 deadline where counties must have levies set is not far off. Levy maximum amount and reduce it later down the line, said Prestby. A county has the right to come down from their capped figure, but can not raise it at a later time.In the last several weeks, department heads have been presenting their proposed 2004 budgets. Many have already streamlined numbers, with little margin to spare. Cost shifting (courtesy of the state), grant shuffling or total elimination of some revenues, and overall continual rising costs have hammered on department budgets with little regard for the long-term effects.As the board members paged through proposed 2004 budgets, Prestby noted several times that not all department heads had presented a list of mandated services (required by state) and non-mandated services. This is a critical area for potential dollar savings. Prestby said the board needs to give departments a dollar amount to cut if the commissioners arent provided with enough information on mandated services.Appropriations Theyre all good, not contributing to anything bad, (wasteful) noted Policy Coordinator Karen Brown as discussions began. There are two types of appropriation categories. The first includes bigger budgeted areas such as, Agricultural Society (county fair), Historical Society (Fountains museum), ambulance services, SWCD, and Extension. The second type includes programs such as the EDA whose funds are appropriated at the Annual Meeting. It was pointed out that the commissioners could cut all appropriations and it still wouldnt be enough to balance the budget. Theyd just have a lot of people really angry concluded the board. With SWCD having one of the largest budgets, it was tough not to look closer at that area. The board cut $50,000 from SWCD, $20,000 from the Library Fund; $6,300 from ambulance services; $8,600 from Historical Society; and $8,400 from the Ag Society. All other appropriations will be cut by 20%.County needs Big-Ticket reductionsWe need Big Ticket items for reductions stated Coordinator Brown. Those budgets would include Highway, Public Health, the Sheriffs Department, and Social Services. What if we dont purchase any capital items for one year? suggested Commissioner Chuck Amunrud. The League of MN Cities (AMC) doesnt like this approach, though. Yet it would create some up-front dollars, but the rotation schedule for replacing equipment is delayed another year. The group was specifically looking at the more than $600,000 designated for Highway equipment for 2004. The department is already behind their recommended rotation schedule. The commissioners agreed to cut $400,000 from Highway. Commissioner Duane Bakke noted that Engineer John Grindeland could still make his planned purchases, but would have to do with fewer employees or something else so long as the final cuts adds up to $400,000. Commissioner Randy Dahl suggested looking at the 2003 budget and making a 10, 15, or 20% cut across the board. Amunrud felt that was a possibility as long as no one department is singled out for a cut. Were at the bare bones now, sympathized Commissioner Helen Bicknese. Across the board cuts could mean a reduction in staff. The board doesnt want to see this happen.It was pointed out that the county has been spending a lot of money on upgrading computers. Part of this is a direct result of the state changing software. Coordinator Brown pointed out that if there were staff reductions, the county would be even more dependent on the computers.A general fee hike to the public for the many services the county provides was considered. However, it was pointed out that at least indirectly, that is a form of raising taxes. Perhaps some services, like the drivers license bureau could be farmed out, thus saving a little money but not nearly enough.When discussion turned back to a straight percentage cut across the board, the board noted some departments are run on a straight revenue basis while others have some grant eligibility. Dahl also felt some departments cut their budgets sooner, whether there were mandates or not. This causes their budgets to take an even greater hit if a straight cut across the board is put into place.When getting back to the Big Ticket items, the board approved a 10% cut which, when added to the already agreed upon cuts, would bring the county to $640,000 closer to the $800,000 target. Other possible savingsEarly retirement options with PERA if an employee has been with the county for at least 15 years is another possibility. The county would be responsible for a set amount of insurance premiums until retirement age. This is still being reviewed. An individual asked Brown if an employee agreed to go .8 for one year, would they be able to come back in 2005 full status again. No action was taken.There was a brief discussion on wage freezing. However, Prestby pointed out this wasnt fair to the non-union employees as union members have a guaranteed set amount in their contract.Electronic courtroom proposalsJudge Robert Benson and Court Administrator Jim Attwood met with commissioners to discuss a request to get budgetary proposals for the electronic equipment for the courtroom. Judge Benson said the current courtroom was suitable for the 50s, but times have really changed. The proposed system would greatly help the hearing impaired, and improve the overall sound system. Document cameras would be used to allow jurors, attorneys, and the judge to review evidence in a much quicker fashion. Based on information supplied by Sherburn County, time saved by the new equipment will range from 15-30% in a trial. This will not only help the backlog of cases, but shave off some dollars paid in attorney fees. The board gave approval.Juliann Mueller can be reached at

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