County weighs deep cuts

Published 10:48 am Monday, March 9, 2009

The list of budget options under consideration by the Mower County Board of Commissioners is far-ranging.

It has to be.

Based on Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposed budget, Mower County will lose $504,331 in County Program Aid monies this year and another $715,938 in 2010.

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That’s more than $1.2-million in the next biennium.

The county has also learned the County Aid Program reduction’s impact in 2011 and beyond will be comparable to those coming in 2010.

Is it any wonder that county coordinator Craig Oscarson uses the expression “bleeding,” when referring to the county’s budget.

It’s bleeding red ink.

The city of Austin faces even more dire circumstances with the reductions in Local Government Aid: $579,374 this year and $1.2-million next year.

The county unveiled its proposed budget reductions in 5- and 10-percent increments at a work session for the county commissioners held Wednesday, March 4, at the downtown government center.

Once again, county coordinator Craig Oscarson was front and center to explain the possible reductions in spending.

According to Oscarson, the review process began five weeks ago. “We had been meeting with department heads and then with the finance committee and told them we needed to, at least, start planning,” Oscarson said of the financial crisis.

“In this case,” Oscarson admitted, “you could look at this as over-planning.”

“The reason I call it over-planning is that we are all old enough to realize the county board is not going to cut the level of deputies that would be needed (One of the 10 percent options proposed).”

“We also realize until the Legislature is done, we won’t know how bad it will be, and we’re hoping it won’t be as bad as the governor proposed,” he said.

“History shows us the governor starts out at one place and the majority in the other party starts out at another place,” Oscarson said. “Then, they meet in the middle.”

“A lot of these budget changes may not need to be taken if they meet in the middle,” he said.

Another sensitive area under consideration for a spending reduction is the Mower County Veterans Service Office.

In addition to office support specialist Carol Mostrom’s job, financial support of the veterans transportation service’s van could be cut.

The Mower County 4-H program is also on the list and mentoring program, too. Even the Mower County Historical Society and Senior Center.

“A lot of those cuts I don’t think will happen, but some will,” Oscarson said frankly.

The county coordinator said the proposed spending reductions originated from department heads themselves.

“The first level was ‘If I have to cut 5 percent, this is what my recommendation would be ….’” he said. “‘If you make me go beyond that, here’s what my recommendation would be.’ ”

“They’re not saying they are jumping up and down and want to do this. They’re saying if I have to be part of the equation, this is what I recommend would be the best thing for my department,” he said.

Programs are likely to attract the most attention, but there are people on the list, also. Either the reduction in hours or the elimination of jobs.

And, because Mower County like other local units of government has trimmed spending before, there may be nowhere else but people and programs or services to eliminate, because of the economic downturn victimizing everyone.


The cuts were not ranked in their order of priority. Rather they were divided by the departments where they could occur.

Neither was a tally made of the over-all dollar impact. Many of the recommendations came with a financial impact “to be determined.”

First on the list were County-Wide potential budget cuts and topping that list was the proposed merger of the Auditor/Treasurer and Recorder elected offices into the appointed Assessor office.

A cost savings of $100,000 was estimated through staff efficiencies and an attrition of 1.5 positions in the offices.

Another County-Wide option would be if all employees would take one unpaid day off work each month.

A four-day work week was another recommendation.

Another was to implement an aggregate (gravel) tax.

Still another County-Wide recommendation was to co-locate or combine the offices of Environmental Services and the Highway Department.

With the co-location would come elimination of the water lab and also privatizing aspects of the sanitary sewage treatment system permitting process.

Also, combining the Environmental Services and Highway Department clerical positions into a single job.

This would also involve moving the Environmental Services workers to the Highway Department and/or Recycling Center facility.


Preliminary estimates of the savings were put at $372,925.

The potential budget cuts filled seven pages.

Some seemed trivial: Eliminate meal portion of employee recognition program – $200 savings.

Some were sure to come with an emotional outcry: Eliminate, reduce or apply a use fee for veterans transpiration program – $2,640 to $19,309 savings.

When the list turned to the potential savings from cuts made to the Mower County Department of Human Services, the county coordinator announced, “This is where you start bleeding more.”

The DHS budget — in excess of $9-million — is among the largest in Mower County’s $57-million expense budget.

Julie Stevermer, director of Mower County DHS, listed the department’s budget reduction options,

The DHS list began with office equipment and county burials. The latter involved removing the choice of cremation or a traditional burial service. Estimated savings: $32,500.

Five- and six-figured sums were plentiful, including $146,424 or the amount spent on sex offender holds.

The expense is dependent upon the vagaries of district court judges and the sex offense cases that come before them.

Mike Hanson’s Mower County Highway Department showed how money could be shaved by eliminating two maintenance employees’ job. Potential savings: $70,000 to $90,000.

Low gasoline prices allowed a reduction of $100,000 in fuel purchases but due to the fluctuations in prices, it was rated a short-term solution only.

Some recommendations were obviously extreme and at least one an option that should not be seriously considered.

For instance, in order to achieve the maximum 10 percent budget reduction in the Mower County Sheriff’s Office, that would mean eliminating deputies, jailers and dispatchers in order to save $419,630 as the goal intended.

Doing that was deemed not a responsible approach due to extreme impact on public safety and the potential growth in crime.

Sentencing To Service could be eliminated at a potential savings of $37,795, but at what price to jail days served by offenders.

The alternative to jail time for some offenders puts men and women to work in a community, performing cleanup and other tasks on public lands.

If they must, instead, serve their sentences in jail, that would increase the county’s costs to house the prisoners.

Some of the recommendations were, indeed, trivial.

Mower County Auditor/Treasurer Doug Groh recommended increasing filing fees. Groh listed the potential savings if fees were increased in increments of 35-, 50- or 75-cents or $1.

The potential savings ranged from $203 to $1,492, according to the Auditor/Treasurer’s estimates.

Oscarson and finance director Donna Welsh added their own “Additional items for consideration” on the list of possible budget cuts.

The pair suggested reducing the county’s allocations to outside agencies.

The question is Would the expected $100,000 potential savings outweigh the impact provided by economic development agencies, Mower County Fair Board and Mower County Historical Society, as well as Mower County Soil and Water Conservation District, among others?

Last on the list of possible budget cuts: Increase property taxes. Potential savings: To be determined.

The county coordinator’s warning is sure not to be ignored.

“Everything is on the table: The good, the bad and the ugly,” he said.