It ain’t over ’til it’s over

Published 5:00 pm Saturday, July 16, 2011

County leaders look to end of shutdown, start of budget effects

Not so fast.

Though Gov. Mark Dayton and the GOP reached a tentative deal Thursday to end the government shutdown, it’s not time to celebrate, according to county employees.

For starters, the state only has a tentative agreement, not a finalized budget.

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“They’ve resolved the budget issues tentatively, but until they have a final signed deal, the shutdown really is not over,” County Coordinator Craig Oscarson said.

“It is over, but it’s not over,” he added.

Human Services Director Julie Stevermer said much of the funds and services not deemed essential are still frozen.

“Just because the shutdown is over, doesn’t mean the money will flow,” Stevermer said.

While most are happy with the end in sight, it’s not all good news, Some have indicated the budget reductions on the backs of cities, counties and school would almost certainly equal an increase in local property taxes. Oscarson described it as simply shifting the burden.

Plus, deferred payments will only delay the problem, not solve it.

“All it did was kick the can down the road for the state budget,” Oscarson said.

“They haven’t dealt with the shortfall,” he added.

Oscarson said he hopes the deal is fully approved in the next week or at least before the end of July. Once that deal is in place, the focus will shift to the effects to the county budget.

“Once they’re done, what is the final budget impact on the county? We don’t know that yet,” Oscarson said.

Early indications don’t bode well for the county.

The Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC) had indicated the county could lose up to $1 million in County Program Aid and other funding. However, those predictions came when multiple budget deals were in the works.

“We could see some tremendous cost shifts to the county,” Oscarson said.

While some cuts are almost a certainty, Oscarson is hoping they are less severe than anticipated.

“Hopefully, it won’t happen that way,” Oscarson said.

Even if there are cuts, Public Health Director Margene Gunderson prefers to know as soon as possible.

“It at least gives us something to work from,” she said.

The shutdown’s end will also end temporary leaves approved for about 40 county workers in Human Services and Public Health, though not all officially took time off. All are back on the job, but some are only working part time and completing tasks with assured state funding, according to Gunderson and Human Services Director Julie Stevermer.

With the employees coming back to work, Gunderson said her focus will shift to the budget.

“We’ll likely go back to business as usual and then spend time focusing on the new budget cycle,” Gunderson said.

The employees were put on temporary leave for the county to minimize the risk of the shutdown on taxpayers, according to Oscarson.

“I think the board acted very financially responsible,” Oscarson said, who added the effect could have been close to $225,000 a month.

Employees used time off and vacation time during the time off, and many used up all their time or were getting close. Oscarson said some were beginning to look into receiving unemployment.

The bulk of the work may just be beginning locally. Human Services is already meeting to discuss potential reductions. The department could face some of the most significant cuts in the budget — potentially $150,00 to $250,000 or more, according the Stevermer.

“There are going to be deep cuts to human services in this next biennium,” she said.

Stevermer said the cuts to Health and Human Services could face $1.8 billion in cuts in 2012 and 2013, according to past budget proposals.

“We’ve got a lot work ahead of us, and this is just the beginning,” Stevermer said.