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Hiring freeze, shorter workweeks pondered by county commissioners

Hubbard County will likely institute a hiring freeze and may look to shorten workweeks by summer if the abysmal economy doesn't turn around.

Those were among the conclusions the Board of Commissioners came to Monday in a work session scheduled to deal with the county budget and institute cuts of at least $900,000. The cuts would bring the county down to the maximum allowable levy under state law, a 4 percent increase over last year.

Commissioners at times approached the grim task as if they were rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

They frequently asked if they were doing themselves any good, or simply robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The county's $8.3 million in reserves was off limits, board chair Lyle Robinson announced at the outset.

"I'm not in favor of taking any money out of reserves," he said. "We need to right the ship before it gets worse and draw a line in the sand today."

Robinson said the county is whittling away at those reserve funds, $1 million here, three-quarters of a million there. The net amount the fund actually drained was almost $400,000 last year, after revenues and expenses were tallied up.

"If we don't do well we'll have to take $1 million out every year," Robinson worried.

"We've been living the good life here," commissioner Dick Devine agreed. He suggested "buying a couple less squad cars, not replacing a person" who retires.

Because the board was not meeting in a formal or special meeting, proposed changes cannot be acted upon until the Feb. 4 meeting.

But commissioners universally agreed on the hiring freeze and instructed Auditor Pam Heeren to e-mail employees Monday afternoon that it was likely to pass at that meeting.

Then commissioners took aim at equipment and vehicle purchases.

Because the county has a fluctuating "undesignated" fund, which accumulates through departmental savings at yearend, all such purchases will now come out of that fund, not the general fund.

But department heads will have to beg for the money, and justify the expenditure.

The county will hold on to squad cars longer and other vehicle purchases will be temporarily delayed until absolutely necessary.

The only department not subject to a hiring freeze will be Social Services, which sees its caseload grow daily as the economy worsens. It is mandated under state law to help certain groups of people, and its caseload is currently burdensome, commissioners agreed. The department can't do more with less, they agreed.

And the commission will reassess its situation in six months. Board members discussed a 37.5-hour workweek for all employees, which could save anywhere from $300,000 to $400,000 annually. If money woes persist by late June, that could be an option, the board mutually agreed.

Department heads were instructed to come to the session, cuts in hand.

First up was David Olsonawski, who coughed up $120,000 in road construction projects, an additional $11,000 for a survey project, and said he'd make do with his 2008 approved budget.

There might be fewer roads paved, there might be fewer slippery spots salted, the county's chief engineer predicted.

But the proposed purchase of a $177,000 snowplow truck will likely move forward. The state will fund 60 percent of the cost with state aid monies. And snow removal isn't really an optional service, Olsonawski reminded the commissioners.

But Olsonawski's department makes money, in addition to spending it. The county gets reimbursed gas tax dollars for paving projects, so Heeren reminded commissioners they didn't want to risk missing out on such federal and state dollars by making cuts to projects that bring in money.

Olsonawski said he can easily delay paving projects if asphalt costs run $60 per ton. However, if they come in at $40 per ton, the county not only saves money, but has the potential to register those projects in the black. Lower gas prices will result in savings, too, Olsonawski pointed out.

The county is a $30 million a year business. Two- thirds of those funds come from state and federal sources. Taxpayers make up the remaining third. But the two-thirds that flow in are for specific purposes, such as road and bridge construction, so the money doesn't flow if the projects don't get built. Olsonawski has already applied for $600,000 in economic stimulus monies for certain projects.

"There's hardly a business in Minnesota that doesn't have less employees except county government," Robinson said. "We've got all of 'em."

Olsonawski departed, with an obvious look of relief on his face.

Commissioners, after shifting the equipment costs to what they laughingly referred to as their "slush fund," then went line by line into each department's budget, since no other department heads were present.

The undesignated fund isn't truly a slush fund, commissioners were careful to point out, but the accumulated savings has come in handy in the past for contingencies that typically arise. The funds have been levied, but not spent.

Commissioners have led the way by example. They only spent 94 percent of their 2008 budget, cutting back per diem costs markedly.

Most departments were asked to make do with their 2008 budgets and figure out how they could cut costs. The departments that have steady or increasing revenues or are primarily personnel will be allowed to keep their 2009 budget requests.

And because items like building permits are down, the people who write those permits are vulnerable to cuts or reassignments. So could assessors. Much of the county's assessing is done by township assessors, not county employees.

But once again, Heeren cautioned the board not to cut people and risk missing deadlines and incurring fines for noncompliance. Grants could receive more scrutiny if the county processes them in a tardy fashion, the county's credit risk could change, she said.

But she admitted the state auditor recently pointed out that Hubbard County had a "huge fund balance," more than the auditor's office would like to see.

At the end of the day, the proposed cuts were around $588,600, with another $235,000 to $240,000 in equipment purchases shifted to the undesignated fund.

But none of the commissioners was euphoric about what they'd accomplished.

"We had a good day but I still don't feel good about it," commissioner Cal Johannsen said, summing up the sentiment.