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Hubbard County looks to employees to reduce 2012 budget

These tax-forfeited lots in Hocking's Acres could be a quick sell when the local economy turns around. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Hubbard County employees, by enrolling in high deductible health plans and living healthier lifestyles, gave taxpayers a break when their health insurance premiums decreased by 1.8 percent for next year.

That amounts to a total $227,953 reduction, with $119,812 in reductions to the county's revenue fund.

"That's huge," said Hubbard County Auditor Pam Heeren.

But as the county budgets for 2012 and embarks on another lean and mean year, those employees will be asked to do more.

In fact, they will be asked for suggestions to help erase a projected $786,063 shortfall in the revenue fund and a $1.7 million shortfall in the county's other funds, the difference between total county revenues and expenditures.

Besides the revenue fund there are road and bridge, Social Services, tax forfeited lands and solid waste funds. The 2012 tax forfeited land budget is the only one projected to go into the black, $596,420.

County officials have proposed putting even tighter strings on employee opportunities to "make" money such as driving their own cars on county business, collecting the federal mileage rate of 55 cents a mile, whereas the county-owned fleet operates at 44 cents a mile.

Employees may have to submit daily meal receipts instead of routinely pocketing $7 for breakfast, $10 for lunch and $15 for dinners they may not be eating when they're on the road.

"The idea of putting in for a meal you don't eat, that's stealing," commissioner Lyle Robinson said.

Heeren said it's those seemingly insignificant things that add up to real money.

At Wednesday's meeting, the board set the payable 2012 levy the same as 2011, at $11,660,194. Employees will be asked how to shave any excess from the various funds.

"It wouldn't be the end of the world" to hold budgets to 2011 levels, commissioner Kathy Grell said to unanimous agreement from fellow board members.

"We heard their arguments," commissioner Lyle Robinson said of department heads' estimated budgets and wish lists for 2012.

"Then we'll give 'em a number."

But when commissioner Cal Johannsen suggested the board "shouldn't give 'em a number they can't live with," Robinson replied, "They will not live within their means if you don't make them live within their means."

Some uncertainties loom as commissioners try to figure out what the Minnesota Legislature did in a frantic post-shutdown session this summer.

Gone will be homestead tax credits. How much? Who knows? A different tax formula will replace homestead credits, where that credit amount will be deducted from the home's overall value and then that reduced value is taxed.

But the net difference to the county is something assessor Bob Hansen is still burning the midnight oil trying to figure out, and what the impact will be on non-homestead and other property owners.

Heeren said there's hope revenues from the newly built gas pipeline will help offset the losses in market value credits. Pipeline revenues go on the books effective 2012.

"There's an awful lot we need to know on this state stuff before we can intelligently go forward," Robinson noted.

The larger departments aren't the only ones that will have to absorb the belt-tightening, he added.

"We all need to find ways to contribute to what we have to cut," he said. "We need to start doing stuff collectively."

Coordinator Debbie Thompson, Public Works Director Dave Olsonawski and Environmental Services Officer Eric Buitenwerf were praised for their collaboration in eliminating a position that was half-time E-911 administrator and half-time ESO staff. The duties will be distributed among existing departments when Barb Barth retires this month.

The board also set the 2012 preliminary Housing and Redevelopment budget at $230,000.

Heeren said the board has always been reluctant to dig into county reserves, but said the "rainy day" may be here. The revenue fund deficit could be augmented with reserve funds without causing the county too much pain, she added.

Tax forfeitures

The grim news was that a record 18 parcels of land were forfeited for tax year 2005. Among those lots were two homes, 11 lots in the Hocking's Acres subdivision in Park Rapids, two vacant lots in Akeley, the site of the old water tower downtown and a lot under water in Lakeport Township.

All revert back to the state. Two are in bankruptcy.

"This is just unheard of," Heeren said. The lots in Hocking's Acres are $175,000 in arrears, Heeren said, with much of that sum special assessments for city services.

The city subdivision off Henrietta Avenue (County Road 6) is in a growing area of town, commissioners reasoned, so the lots should eventually sell.

Closing the jail

The county could actually lose more money by closing the underused jail, than keeping it operating below capacity, Hubbard County Sheriff Cory Aukes reported.

Cass County closed its jail a few years ago and still has to employ eight full-time and four part-time jailers plus other staff just to accommodate daily arrests, Aukes told the board.

"If we eliminated 10 of the jailers, which would also include the jail programmer, the approximate cut would be roughly $610,000," Aukes said in an interview after the board meeting.

"That's what the expenses would go down.

"But based on 30 inmates, our expenses would be $525,000 a year plus medical, which can be anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 a year, you really have no idea where that's at," he said tabulating the expenses for housing inmates elsewhere.

"But we would also have to add an additional transport officer plus benefits, there's a specific amount of money. You'd also have to buy another vehicle plus fuel, you're looking at anywhere from ... with 30 inmates you're looking at probably $605,000 a year for expenses. If we went up to 40 inmates that we had to house elsewhere that would bump it up to roughly $785,000 a year to house them out."

The facility has been averaging 30 inmates just from Hubbard County, not counting boardings from Wadena or other counties, Aukes said.

"There's a big difference; $610,000 a year in wages that we would save but our expenses would be anywhere from $605,000 to $785,000.

"Obviously with these numbers it's a no-brainer," he said.

Departmental budgets will be fine-tuned to look for further reductions before a final levy amount is ascertained.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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