County officials concerned about 2011, 2012 funding

Published 7:16 am Monday, January 11, 2010

Just a few weeks into 2010, Mower County officials are already looking to the funding concerns of 2011 and 2012.

After 2009 saw the state face a more than $6 billion budget shortfall and Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s unallotments, the following biennium could pose even more challenges.

“The real gorilla is the next two years,” said Mower County Coordinator Craig Oscarson.

Some experts indicate the state’s budget shortfall — $1.2 billion in the rest of the current biennium and about $5.4 billion in the next biennium — may actually be closer to a combined $8 billion because of inflation, Oscarson said.

The county is already looking to ways to deal with that shortfall. In January and February, Oscarson and the Mower County Board of Commissioners will meet with local legislators to discuss the most pressing issues facing the county.

Mower County typically receives about $2.5 to $2.6 million in County Program Aid, but the 2009 unallotments reduced that amount by about $400,000.

Though the CPA certification still calls for about $2.6 million of CPA in the future, Oscarson said the county likely won’t receive that amount of money in the near future. Officials with the legislature have indicated the $400,000 cut through unallotments is likely a permanent deduction, so CPA will average closer to $2.1 million.

“We don’t believe we’re going to see any reimbursement of those unallotments,” Oscarson said. “Most likely, we’re going to see more. And so the question’s going to be: How do we deal with it? We’re going to have to look at all sorts of stuff.”

Taking off the handcuffs

While the state cuts affect most state funded agencies, Oscarson said the cuts affect the county differently than other groups because the state mandates counties to fund certain programs and provide certain services.

Oscarson and the commissioners, like officials in other counties, will be looking to the state to ease the financial burden by reforming outdated mandates.

“If there are some mandates that really don’t serve us, either change them or get rid of them,” Oscarson said.

The governor and the state haven’t yet made such changes.

“What we haven’t seen is a real willingness or understanding by legislators and the governor on changing mandates,” Oscarson said. “We haven’t really seen true mandate reform.”

Oscarson described county government as an arm of the state government, meaning the county can only do what the state legally allows. Refusing or ignoring a mandate would result in fines.

“What our efforts and struggles are going to be is to convince the governor and the legislature to take some of the handcuffs off,” Oscarson said. “Us and schools, specifically, we’re mandated to death.”

Last year, counties urged the legislature to consider a bill to change requirements concerning hours of required operation for county buildings, but no bill was passed. Statute requires government buildings to be open regular hours Monday through Friday, except on holidays. Many counties estimate that only being open four days a week would significantly cut costs.

Oscarson estimated the change to a four-day work week would save the county $50,000 to $75,000 a year in the buildings budget. The change would likely curb heating costs over a longer weekend and reduce the number of days crews clean the building, he said. The Mower County Government Center would then be open four days a week

The state also requires the county to publicize financial statements. Currently, those statements are publicized in local newspapers. The county could potentially save money by publicizing the statements online.

If the state legislature changed mandates like that, counties could pursue different ways to save.

“I think the legislature is going to need to look at that,” Oscarson said. “And hopefully they will actually get interested in looking at that, because they’re staring right in the teeth of a big problem.”

Solutions

One key way for counties to cope with the current and future budget concerns is by updating outdated mandates to meet the current needs, Oscarson said.

“I think it’s the responsibility of the legislature to be open to all these ideas, and it’s our responsibility to give them some ideas,” Oscarson said.

For example, the county receives a certain amount of money through the Mental Health Maintenance of Effort grant and is required to spend it. The funding for the grant was set when the county had more need for services, but the funding hasn’t changed.

“The state’s position is: You have to spend it,” Oscarson said. “Other counties are crying for that money. So we’re trying to get the public educated: If we really don’t need it, why do we spend it?”

Many of the mandates haven’t been changed in a number of years. Oscarson compared the state changing mandates to the city of Austin reviewing the city charter.

“It’s appropriate for the current city elected officials to look at it,” Oscarson said. “That doesn’t mean it needs a change, but it’s very appropriate to look at because when that charter was put in place decades ago. It’s a different world today.”

“To be responsible government officials and elected officials, we have a responsibility to make that work for today, and it’s the same thing with the mandate reform,” he added. “Many of the mandates have been in place for 100 years or better — a long, long time. And is it really appropriate for today’s world?”

Cooperation between all the entities of government is the key way to solve this spending problem. Not only will the county and state legislature need to cooperate, Oscarson said the county will need to work with the city, the school district and neighboring counties to find ways to provide services with less funding.

“That’s the solution,” Oscarson said. “If we can’t do that, we all failed each other — we failed the people that we serve.”

Citizens

While people elect officials to operate and make the necessary changes in government, Oscarson said citizens have a responsibility to learn what their representatives are capable of changing.

“A lot of people have these misconceptions or misperceptions of what we can and can’t do, and they need to understand where our handcuffs are, where you change those things, and how many of these things could our current board do,” Oscarson said. “Without that knowledge, it becomes opinions.”

People need to be educated concerning what different levels of government are able to do, so they can better help propose ideas on how the government can operate more efficiently.

For example, government could eventually offer more services electronically. Elections could be done online, which would save the costs of things like ballots and election judges, Oscarson said. However, such changes aren’t made until a large number of people demand the change.

“It’s a squeaky wheel,” Oscarson said. “If enough people squeak, change will be made.”