Budget battle delays new animal shelter

Published 9:23 am Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Austin residents may have to wait for a new city animal shelter, thanks to the budget battles between the state legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton.

City officials froze about $1.1 million in expenditures in this year’s capital outlay budget in anticipation of cuts to Local Government Aid. Since legislators and the governor won’t settle a budget until the special session, city officials don’t know whether $250,000 set aside for a new city animal shelter will happen, even though it’s technically in the budget.

“As of now, it’s still there; but until we figure out what’s going to come down from the state we just don’t know,” said Tom Dankert, Austin’s director of administrative affairs.

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City officials have long known the city shelter’s tough shape, which is why they proposed $250,000 from the capital projects fund be used for a new building. They had reservations about the state legislature last fall, foreseeing the budget battles that threaten a state government shutdown in July.

“I think we all here anticipated that this would happen,” said Jim Hurm, Austin’s administrator.

A new animal shelter depends on which side’s budget plan prevails. LGA cuts in the House and Senate budget bills would mean cuts of about $1.1 million, which is what city officials expected. In that case, the funding for a new animal shelter would be used for other things pending an official decision by City Council and the project would have to wait another year. If Dayton’s plan is accepted, there would be minimal effects to Austin’s budget, which means city officials could look at options for a new shelter, as long as City Council approves the proposal.

“If they meet somewhere in the middle, that’s a 50/50 chance, and it depends on what the council’s priorities are,” Dankert said.

Hurm doesn’t believe a new shelter will happen this year, however. Since there were massive LGA cuts in the House and Senate bills, He’s pretty sure the city is going to be affected one way or another.

“We’re just sort of on hold, not spending until (we know what our budget will be),” Hurm said.

City officials are wary of the legislature’s budget balancing, having experienced LGA delays before when former Gov. Tim Pawlenty tried unallocating funds to balance the state budget in the last fiscal cycle.

If the special session results in a government shutdown in July, an aid payment of about $3 million will be delayed that month, one of two payments the city receives. Since the city’s fiscal year starts in January, the payment the state would make using funds from next year’s budget would drastically affect the city’s plans for this year.

“If they shut down money from Austin, it will have a major effect on us,” Hurm said.

That means the animal shelter, as well as a professional librarian position that’s gone unfilled, a city hall carpet replacement project, money from an opt-out health insurance provision for city employees and a police station remodel that city officials preferred to fund from the capital building fund would also be held off until next year, since these things and more were part of the $1.1 million city budget freeze.

“We’re just not going to do these things until we know we’re going to get the money,” Hurm said.