County battles budget shortfall

Published 5:00 pm Saturday, August 21, 2010

Signs outside the information office at the government building tell the tale. The current budget situation has forced time constraits as to when the office can be open. - Eric Johnson/

Mower County’s budget issues are beyond tightening belts and crunching numbers, and the county is currently dealing with a budget problem that’s reached seven figures.

While the budget shortfall was expected at about $500,000, Mower County Coordinator Craig Oscarson said the board is now facing a deficit of more than $1 million based on early budget requests. However, Oscarson said they won’t have an exact number for a few weeks

Oscarson and county board members have been working in budget meetings this past week preparing to set the county’s preliminary budget levy on Sept. 15. The meetings have shown the recent budget issues continuing.

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“It’s getting worse,” Oscarson said when comparing this year’s budget to past years.

Oscarson said he sees budget issues continuing for two to three years before it gets any better.

“It could get worse, depending on what happens at the sate this year,” he said.

State funding

State cuts and a number of factors are driving the budget short fall, Oscarson said.

County Program Aid from the state has vastly decreased in recent years, and the state cuts are expected to surpass $1 million by the end of the year. If the state opted to entirely cut the county’s remaining $2 million in CPA, the budget deficit would jump to $3 million. However, the state’s changes won’t come until next spring.

Another unexpected cost driving the budget has been an increase to out of home placement costs in Correctional Services. The cost to place a juvenile in custody after he or she commits a crime has increased in corrections. According to county records, the board budgeted $379,000 for out of home placements in 2007, and ended up with an actual cost of $465,096. That number has continued to grow, and the projected costs for out home placements in corrections this year are projected to reach $963,922.

Oscarson said there’s no way to tighten their way to around the out of home placements. Cuts or tax increases are looking more and more likely.

Last year as state aid dropped, the county made some cuts. The boards cut funding to the fair board and the Development Corp. of Austin. In recent years, the county froze funding to the Mower County Senior Center.

A number of other factors are driving the budget difficulties. The county’s health insurance rates are also slated to increase by 20 percent, and Oscarson noted the county had a high number of claims last year. The county income from interest on money in the bank has also decreased.

The solution comes down to a choice between reducing services or raising taxes, Oscarson said.

“Do we reduce services that do minimal harm or do we raise taxes and keep everything the same or somewhere in between?” Oscarson said.

While many departments have staff driving most of the costs, Oscarson said many departments have costs driven by outside entities. For example, the county engineer oversees highway projects, but contractors do much of the work.

“We’re kind of at the will of the economy when it comes to those costs,” Oscarson said. “There’s a lot of costs that go up over time, and they’re not employee costs.”

Creative solutions

One way the county is looking to save money is by closing some offices during the lunch hour to save on staff costs. After an employee retired on a phased retirement, the central services desk, which deals with things like burning permits and passports, began closing over lunch. That office was closed last week because an employee was gone on sick leave, and Oscarson didn’t have the overtime budget to staff the office.

“What we’re trying to do when we do this is do the least harm,” Oscarson said of the changes.

The court administration counter is closed until 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays because of reduced staff. Mower County Human services also closes their office window for an hour over lunch because of their high case loads in their office.

“That’s where the challenge of the county board members is: Is it better to close for an hour to pay more in payroll? What would the tax payers rather see. It’s all about choice,” Oscarson said.

He noted that long-term decisions may make larger, more substantial cuts to services.

After the court administration office moves to the new justice center, Oscarson said he may lobby the board to move his office, the human services director’s office, and central services to the current courts window so he and his staff can man the central services office more easily when it would currently be closed. However, that would likely just be a temporary solution.

A tough economy

As the board looks for a solution, Oscarson said they’re going to need to continue to get input from the public.

“They’re (the board) going to have to make decisions about raising taxes — short and long term — to keep things going in a tough economy or cutting many services that also hurt the public in a tough economy,” Oscarson said. “It’s not a fun time.”

If a new commissioner beats out an incumbent in November, Oscarson noted that they’ll be facing the same questions.

“The board’s in a tough situation right now, and any new members that come on will have the same problem,” Oscarson said.