Living budget to budget

Published 7:20 am Friday, July 30, 2010

A sentenced to serve crew hangs a gutter at the Mower County Fairgrounds Wednesday afternoon. --Eric Johnson/

County deals with budget realities

Though the final 2011 budget won’t be on the books until December, the county is already discussing the budget, a topic that is rarely out of sight and out of mind.

With discussions of potential cuts and funding reductions still a few months away, county department heads are discussing their individual budget needs. However, the budget is rarely forgotten.

“The budget is always in our mind,” said county attorney Kristen Nelsen. “We’re never not thinking of the budget.”

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No county department has been untouched by recent money concerns, and some programs have been at risk of being cut entirely.

The county’s Sentenced to Serve program was at risk early this year after the state almost entirely cut funding. The county cut all its funding to the Mower County Fair.

Despite the concerns and cuts, work in the county goes on. Correctional Services director Steve King said STS is currently business as usual after the county opted to provide more money for the program.

County department heads have been tasked this year with reducing their non-staff budgets by 5 percent, a challenge that can be difficult for budgets that are already stretched thin.

“I truly can’t find 5 percent unless I cut somebody,” King said.

Nelsen said she will likely be able to find 5 percent to cut in her budget, largely because she has a much smaller budget than Corrections. However, Nelsen said the cuts are starting to leave their mark.

When the economy is lagging, correctional services, human services and the county attorney’s office often see an upswing in the need for service, according to County Coordinator Craig Oscarson. These departments can’t turn aways service, so as the need increases, so does the workload.

“It puts a lot of pressure on our employees to serve our clients with limited time available,” Oscarson said.

Understaffing has become a common problem in many departments. With 10 employees — five lawyers and five support staff — Nelsen said her department is understaffed compared to other counties. A bigger concern to Nelsen is that two of her staff are only employed because of a temporary grant.

According to Oscarson, other departments — including corrections — are at risk of losing grant funding, which could potentially lead to future staffing cuts.

At times, Nelsen said the the budget concerns may be affecting the outcome of trials. For example, Nelsen said they don’t have the budget capacity to fly in witnesses or experts to testify in a trial.

“We understand we need to save money,” Nelsen said. “We understand we’re not on an endless budget, but we are a law office.”

Whenever a decision is made, Nelsen said, the budget plays a role. In the county attorney’s office, Nelsen said, she and her staff frequently use medical records, which are necessary for even minor cases. The records often cost a great deal of money.

Familiar territory

Budget concerns are nothing new to county and state government. Nelsen said there have been budget concerns as long as she’s been working in the county attorney’s office.

King, too, said budget concerns come with the territory.

“I’ve been working in government for 22 years, and I’ve never had it where they said, ‘You know what, Steve, this year you go buy whatever you want to buy. This is our year.’ We’ve always operated under some form of budget constraints — serious budget constraints,” King said.

However, King said, those concerns have increased in recent years with the state of the economy.

“We now even have to take a look at cutting programs that make sense,” King said.

One of those programs is Sentenced to Serve.

“STS is a great program that really makes sense and in the end makes money,” King said. “It’s a great deal for everybody because the community gets work. … Somebody would have to do that work.”

However, many county and state officials agree that cuts are going to eventually have to target programs people like.

The state of Minnesota initially cut its half of the county’s $75,000 STS budget last year but then reinstated a portion of the funding. The county now pays 75 percent — $56,000— and the state pays 25 percent — $18,800.

While the county is taking on more of the funding, King said the split is fair because the work benefits the county and local area more than it does the state government.

Nowhere to cut

After recent cuts, Nelsen said, many departments have reduced spending all they can. But now, department heads are being asked to cut again.

“There’s nowhere to cut,” she said.

In some departments, fees have been used to offset reduced budgets. When looking at a budget of more than 900,000, the $72,432 paid in offender fees in 2009 are a welcome addition.

“It’s certainly not the whole answer, but it helps,” King said.

While it’s not an overall fix, King said they can garner some of those fees from the people using the services: the offenders.

Nelsen said that using fees is often a temporary fix, as that money is often needed elsewhere.