County board grapples with 2012 budget
A small parade of Hubbard County department heads appeared before the county board Thursday afternoon to plead their cases for overstepping their budget limits while a smaller parade of property owners appeared the same night to bemoan their taxes.
Some department heads went to great lengths to reduce their budgets to the numbers assigned to them by the board earlier this fall in a no new spending command.
Veterans Service Officer Greg Remus sought to successfully cut $1,400 from his tiny staff by cutting and shifting phone services.
Assistant County Attorney Erika Randall has cut all electronic legal research services to bring the law library budget under control. The law library should be in the black by next year, she told the board. It has run deficits of $5,000 to $10,000 consistently.
Auditor Pam Heeren said there was nothing she could do about her elections budget, which she estimates could reach $60,000 in a presidential election year. Because there were no elections in 2011, those added expenditures stand out, she said.
But one department head stood firm in rationalizing his $375,000 overage.
Sheriff Cory Aukes said public safety could not be compared to any other business. Deputies and dispatchers must work 24/7 to protect the county, he maintained.
He said, as he repeatedly has in the past, that he inherited an "unrealistic" budget he can do nothing with.
"We were out of fuel by the budget back in May," he told the board.
He raised the training budget from $1,000 to $8,000.
"When you deal with guns and squad cars" lawsuits are inevitable, he said.
"The first thing they (a plaintiff's attorney) look at is training."
He said he has cut overtimes expenditures by $30,000 and brought nearly a half million into the department via grants to pay for radio equipment and specialized patrols.
But board members pointed out the overtime was eaten up by part-time salaries paid out.
"We appreciate the whining," board member Lyle Robinson said, only partly in jest.
"You need to sit down with the mayor and say, 'I have a budget problem and you have a budget problem,'" Robinson suggested.
He has long suggested combining county and city protection. He said nothing makes taxpayers more irate than when three or four agencies respond to an emergency and the public sees officers standing around at the scene.
"This $375,000 has to come from somewhere else," Robinson said, hoping to guilt the sheriff into making cuts.
"Nobody's questioning the validity," said commissioner Kathy Grell, who has clashed with the sheriff before on the extensive overtime the department accrues.
"It's a deficit," she continued. "We have to think harder."
Aukes said to get to the numbers the county wants him to operate at, he'd have to cut half of his deputies and many jail staff. That would bring taxpayer anger if the department had no one to respond to an emergency or increased the response time due to staff shortages.
"Which emphasis are you going to put on it?" he questioned the board.
Robinson refused to budge.
"We can't hardly steal from some people who don't have any," he said, referring to the smaller departments that will be asked to subsidize the law enforcement budget.
"You need to try to find ways to bring in revenue that does not increase your budget."
But commissioner Cal Johannsen, a former chief deputy, supported Aukes.
"I appreciate that Cory is presenting realistic numbers," he said.
"Sitting by while Cory runs out of money in May doesn't make sense to me," said commissioner Dick Devine, a former State Patrol officer. He likened the situation to only putting $10 of gas in a tank and setting off for Minneapolis, rather than filling the tank.
And commissioners honed in on the biggest financial drain - and potential for revenue - the county jail.
Aukes and jail administrator Sherri Klasen said they've met with the Department of Corrections and are doing all they can to lure more inmates to the jail, which consistently runs at half capacity.
"If I could snap my fingers to generate revenue I would," Aukes said.
"Renting out the cells is not a profitable thing," Devine said, "My fear is filling all the cells is not going to solve the problem. I'm on your side but I don't have any money."
And commissioners agreed jail staff constitutes fixed costs regardless of the number of inmates.
"We can't give you more levy dollars," Johannsen explained. "We've gotta do it somehow for the same amount that we did last time."
Aukes once again objected, saying "the easiest, fastest, quickest way to eliminate a budget shortfall is to cut staff."
Robinson suggested asking the smaller towns to chip in for law enforcement since most have eliminated local police forces.
Nevis currently pays the lion's share of having a deputy patrol that town. Maybe Akeley, Laporte and other communities should similarly chip in, Robinson suggested.
At yearend, Robinson said it wouldn't be the end of the world if the sheriff can't make budget. Some departments will come in under budget, he said, and overage will flow to those departments that couldn't keep expenditures in line.
But Grell cautioned Aukes not to play that card too often.
"After awhile they don't like that," she said of the other departments subsidizing law enforcement. "It's your baby to solve."
The county's Truth in Taxation meeting went off much as it has in the past. While Heeren and Assessor Bob Hansen explained the budget and relatively low tax rate compared to neighboring counties, worried taxpayers showed up with their 2012 estimated tax statements.
"I'm looking at a 32 percent increase and that concerns me greatly," protested Tom Gruber, who showed up with wife Nancy.
Mark Amble also questioned the steep hike in his taxes. He said the county portion of his taxes rose 43 percent.
Heeren explained the $260 million tax shift Minnesota legislators enacted during a frantic special session last July after a government shutdown.
Local taxpayers will have to absorb that shift, she said. Hubbard County has held its net levy to around $11 million since 2008, she said. It's tentatively set for $11.6 million for 2012.
Robinson wasn't about to let state lawmakers off the hook for the changes they enacted to homestead credits the state used to reimburse local taxing authorities.
He told the property owners to call their state representatives about the shift.
"And ask your senator or legislator to read the legislation before they sign it" next time, he said.