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County addresses Minnesota budget deficit


Fri, Mar 14th, 2008
Posted in Government

PRESTON - County commissioners invited department heads in for a discussion about the state budget shortfall and how the county could be affected at their March 11 meeting. The Minnesota Department of Finance announced a forecast in February of a $935 million deficit for the current biennium. The governor is allowed to reduce the general fund to close the gap. The deficit is nearly 3 times larger than predicted last November. The Finance Department predicts over a $2 billion dollar deficit for the coming biennium of 2010-2011 with inflation. Chairman Randy Dahl stated that Governor Pawlenty, according to radio and TV reports, has made it clear that he intends to veto any tax increases to cover the shortfall. Dahl suggested that this leaves cuts in the state spending which can lead to cost shifts to local units of government.

State Economist Tom Stinson maintains that the worsened deficit is the result of the downturn in the economy. He is optimistic that the downturn will be "shallow and short." However, he was concerned about the effect on the economy if the price of a barrel of oil remains above $75 per barrel. As of today, the price of a barrel has briefly hit a new record of $109 before retreating to $107.

Dahl went on to float the idea of a hiring freeze for new hires within the county government. County Engineer John Grindeland added that MnDot staff people have rumored that the governor is considering imposing levy limits for the coming biennium. Grindeland hoped the rumors were wrong.

Sheriff Daryl Jensen insisted that a hiring freeze would not be productive. When the economy turns down, his work load, meaning crime, tends to rise. Commissioner Duane Bakke maintained that levy limits don't usually work. Governments tend to levy to their limit when a limit is imposed, plus there are exceptions granted. Bakke concluded that levies may actually end up higher than without the imposed limit.

Jensen was concerned about the future of the Sentence to Serve (STS) program which may be threatened with cuts. He said that it could end as soon as June 30. Without state support the liability and responsibility would be placed on the county. Jensen praised the STS efforts in the cleanup of the city of Rushford after the flood. He estimated that the crews put in 800,000 hours of work there. The funds for the program from the state are about $35,000. Bakke suggested that a letter be sent to the governor to emphasize the work contribution.

Commissioner Chuck Amunrud was concerned about the possible demand for restoring the overpayment of the disability waiver. This would involve four counties including Fillmore. The amount that Fillmore County would be responsible for would be about $350,000. Bakke said that in order for the governor to restore the law requiring payment, the state legislature would have to pass a law to do that.

Bakke at this time does not expect cuts in the Local Government Aid as there is no mention of that in the governor's budget. Sheriff Jensen suggested that department budgets have already been cut back and that the only way to make further cuts would require the cutting of personnel. County Coordinator Karen Brown warned of a ripple effect, with a pressure to do more with less.

Commissioner Bakke insisted that the county has levy limits in place of its own. Dahl noted that most of the increase in the levy is the result of the inflation of costs including health insurance and energy. Bakke warned of the shortfalls that may result if the economy doesn't improve.

Highway

A resolution providing for a Master Partnership Agreement with the Minnesota Department of Transportation was adopted. John Grindeland described the agreement as a two way street and both cities and counties are required to adopt it. He explained that the state does testing on aggregate, bituminous, and reinforcing rods. The state has done this kind of testing for decades. The agreement is for five years. Grindeland says the county should have the same responsibility for costs as it does now.

John Grindeland suggested that the six representatives and two state senators that crossed over, voted with the Democrats, and put their careers on the line should be publicly thanked for being transportation minded. Without them, Grindeland made it clear that the governor's veto would not have been overridden and that the transportation system would have been out of luck once again. Grindeland projected that over ten years the county could see an increase of over $14 million dollars.

Septic Systems

Zoning Administrator Norman Craig said that a $175,000 grant from the state has been received for helping to upgrade sewers for low income families. A seven member Individual Treatment System Grant Committee was approved including commissioners Amunrud and Bakke. A list of criteria including that existing septic systems must be determined to be an imminent threat to public health to qualify was approved. The application deadline for the first grants is March 15. A landowner must be on public assistance or SSI to qualify for the first round of grants.

Craig said that applications have been sent out to 249 households with 29 responses to date.

Other Business

• A joint teleconference with Houston County for the Joint Board of Health was held. The 2007 Fillmore-Houston local public health expenditure report was adopted. The next face to face joint meeting will be held May 13 at 1:00 PM.

The Fillmore County Board approved the report. Public Health Director Sharon Serfling noted that her expenditures for the year 2007 were about $83,000 less than the amount budgeted for.

• Six licenses were approved for haulers to the Fillmore County Resource Recovery Center. Jon Martin noted that there will be a free collection for electronics (TV, computer, cell phone, etc.) at the Apache Mall in Rochester on April 25 and 26. He added that it is only for residential e-waste. Martin hopes to have a collection in this area at a later date.

• Concern about the closing of the doors to the court house lobby was discussed. Because of the state's deficit, cuts in services have resulted. The state funds the court system. Chuck Amunrud insisted that the remodel of the court house was designed with security in mind. He said that the waiting area has to be open to the public. County Attorney Kelly Wagner noted that six administrative personnel are to be cut throughout the district with one of them being here at the Fillmore County Courthouse. A motion was passed directing Chairman Dahl and County Coordinator Karen Brown to go to the court administrator and to the judge with the concerns of the commissioners that the doors be left open to the waiting room.

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