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Crunch time for Becker County

When Becker County received a turkey of a Christmas present from Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the State Legislature at the end of 2008 -- in the form of a $300,000 state aid cut -- Minnesota was facing a $4.9 billion budget deficit.

Since then, that deficit estimate has grown to between $7 billion and $8 billion for the next biennium -- and Becker County officials are bracing for another state aid cut that they fear could reach as high as $550,000 or more.

On Tuesday afternoon, county commissioners and department heads gathered at the courthouse in Detroit Lakes for a lengthy strategic planning session, to begin the painful process of trimming between $800,000 and $1 million from the county's bottom line.

That's the amount the county deems will be necessary to reduce spending and/or increase revenues to achieve a balanced budget for 2010 and beyond.

"That's our game plan," said County Administrator Brian Berg at the start of the session.

At the beginning of the year, County Board Chairman Harry Salminen had issued a challenge to each department head to come up with at least some ways in which their budgets could be reduced, or additional revenues raised.

"I look at these budgets now, and they're lean, but ... we've got to get leaner," he said at the Jan. 6 meeting, where a similar strategic planning session was held.

Tuesday afternoon, Salminen praised the group for responding -- but added that he wanted to "keep the momentum going" by continuing to look for ways to streamline operations where possible. By the end of the day, the group had agreed upon just under $650,000 in spending reductions. Of those, about $150,000 came in the form of personnel reductions, and the remaining $500,000 came from other areas.

For instance, Highway Engineer Brad Wentz came up with a proposal to reduce the amount of seal coating and grading of gravel roads done by his department each year.

While these and other cuts will result in a $252,000 cost reduction for his department, it will also cost about $130,000 in lost revenue (from state aid and other sources).

Wentz said he was also aware that cutting back on gravel road maintenance would "generate a lot of calls" to his department.

"There are going to be some unhappy people," he said.

Sheriff Tim Gordon's budget plan included not filling a vacant deputy's position, while Human Services Director Nancy Nelson's proposal included cutting the county's allocation to the Becker County Coordinator on Aging program.

Like Wentz's proposal, both of these measures are expected to generate controversy -- Nelson said the decision to cut funding for the senior coordinator's position could be "very political."

In fact, the latter met with some opposition from the county commissioners themselves.

"We're looking at cutting services to what has been called 'the greatest generation' -- a dying generation -- and I have a problem with that," said Commissioner John Bellefeuille.

Commissioner Gerry Schram expressed similar sentiments, noting that "if you're going to call these people 'the greatest generation,' then leave it (the funding) in there."

"I think we should be contributing something to that (program)," Commissioner Barry Nelson said, adding that he thought maybe they should consider cutting the funding by 50 percent this year, with the "strong possibility" of cutting the remaining half in the future.

After some discussion, the commissioners came to a consensus that they should cut the funding for the senior coordinator by half.

After going over the proposed cuts at length, the group's discussion then turned to broader concepts, such as a county-wide hiring freeze, an early retirement buyout plan, voluntary unpaid leave, and more extensive sharing of personnel between departments.

The group targeted the latter two proposals as "high priority," while noting that a blanket hiring freeze and buyout plan were "low priority."