Top stories 2009: No. 1, The year of cutsLocal government officials had to make tough decisions this year amid state aid cuts and levy limits.
By: R-E News Staff, The Republican Eagle
Local government officials had to make tough decisions this year amid state aid cuts and levy limits.
County, city and school leaders said they tried hard to balance their budgets without passing too much pain onto taxpayers struggling on their own to make ends meet as the economy took a tumble.
Services were cut, positions not filled, and departments rearranged this year, and local government officials suspect more changes and hard choices will be on the table for 2010.
Commissioners talked all year about how the tough economy and dwindling dollars would change the way local government operates.
One of the county’s first major changes will come this week when Goodhue County Public Health staff officially transfer the county’s homecare program to new owners Thursday.
“It’s sad but we’ll get through it,” said Karen Main, Public Health Service director.
The homecare program provides nurse, health aide and homemaker services to more than 150 county residents.
This week’s shift marks the end of a months-long process set in motion earlier this year by commissioners forced to balance the county’s 2010 budget.
The homecare program cost the county $278,000 this year. A Hopkins, Minn., company —Accra Home Health — took the program off the county’s hands and paid $456,000 for the program, including its Medicare license, client list and employees.
Main said most of the clients have decided to receive services from the new provider and almost all county staff who would have otherwise been laid off accepted positions with the company.
Public Health wasn’t the only department to see changes because of budget cuts and tough economic times.
Commissioners voted earlier this year to hand food, beverage, lodging, mobile home park, pool, campground and school kitchen inspections back to state officials.
Based on current county figures and established permit fees, county officials said this week the move won’t be a budget savings to the county, though two employees were be laid off and remaining staff were transferred to another department to handle septic inspections, wells, public health nuisances and meth labs.
To fill the multi-million dollar budget gap, other departments were restructured and management officials were rarely given approval to fill positions.
Local human services programs will be cut more than $1 million next year with more slashing expected in 2011.
Mental health services and non-secure placements for juveniles will take the biggest hit to help balance the county’s 2010 human services budget, said Human Services Director Greg Schoener.
The pain was not passed onto taxpayers, however — at least not at the county level.
Commissioners in September voted to hold next year’s tax levy steady, despite warnings from county administrators that not raising taxes could cause future budget problems and larger tax increases in light of state aid uncertainties and state-imposed levy caps.
“I think that zero percent increase is really important,” Commissioner Ron Allen told the Republican Eagle. “People just don’t have the money right now.”
Cuts to Local Government Aid by Gov. Tim Pawlenty made for a topsy-turvy 2009 for Red Wing City Council.
City officials had to rework Red Wing’s 2009 budget and then hurry to balance the 2010 budget.
In the end, thanks to a couple of fortunate occurrences, council members passed a flat levy — $12.66 million — which they said was an important measure to show support for residents struggling in a tough economy.
The city lost $568,816 in state aid last December and $360,000 more in July. The city also learned that it will lose $90,000 of the $1.4 million in LGA it was set to receive next year.
City officials trimmed their operation by freezing over 30 staff positions, helping the city avoid a large number of layoffs.
Council also chose to cut some programs and services this past year to help make ends meet, including the popular summer recreation program.
Although the city was able to pass a balanced budget, many city officials believe they’ll need to revisit it just as was necessary to do with this year’s budget.
“We have not heard the last from the state yet,” At-large member Carol Duff said at the Dec. 14 City Council. She’s not alone in fearing the state will make LGA cuts next year as well.
Red Wing has tried to build a safety net by setting aside $700,000 in a contingency fund for 2010.
Red Wing school leaders had hoped to shrink class sizes in 2009.
Supt. Stan Slessor said that while some gains were made, efforts were largely put on hold when Gov. Pawlenty froze K-12 funding.
Schools had been expecting a 1 percent state funding increase.
“We were able to keep most of the programming intact, however,” Slessor said.
The district also borrowed more money from the state after Pawlenty delayed 27 percent of the state’s K-12 payment until 2011.
Red Wing School Board members approved borrowing up to $5.2 million to account for any cash-flow problems caused by the funding shift.
“We are committed to improved student performance, shrinking the achievement gap, and increasing our graduation rate,” Slessor said, “and we will do that with the money we have.”