Local officials say next round of retrenchments will draw real pain

Local officials say next round of retrenchments will draw real pain
CORBIS

If you visit the Brainerd lakes area this summer, Tim Houle is betting you won’t notice that Crow Wing County has slashed its staff by more than 10 percent since 2008.

The up-north feel of the popular resort area is the county’s economic lifeblood. So Houle, the county administrator, did what he could to shield care for tourist areas from the budget ax. Visitors should find the scenic area as pleasant as it was in the past, and maybe even more so.

Like Crow Wing, cities and counties across Minnesota have grappled to do more with less — or, at least, the same with less — as state officials balanced their own budgets by pushing down hard on funding for local governments. The hope was to use a budget scalpel, not a cleaver, and to cut so judiciously that citizens wouldn’t notice, wouldn’t miss essential services, wouldn’t squawk.

Well, get ready to notice. The nearly invisible cuts already have been made. And the next round of retrenchments will draw real pain, county and city officials told MinnPost.

“We’ve heard this doing-more-with-less mantra since 2003,” said Joe Matthews, a policy analyst at the Association of Minnesota Counties. “Now we are at a point where we need to begin talking seriously about doing less with less, to start making hard choices.”

In other words, you should brace for real and close-to-home losses in government services.

People are the key
State and local governments already have cut expenses in a myriad of ways — from delaying the replacement of aging equipment to consolidating departments to joining multi-city buying blocks.

People, though, are the core of public service. As such, public employees provide a key indicator of the service levels Minnesotans can expect from government in the months and years to come.
 
Those same employees also soak up the largest single portion of the money taxpayers lay out to support government in the state. Historically, personnel costs have accounted for nearly half of the cost of government in Minnesota, according to the Office of the Legislative Auditor. [PDF] 

That’s why personnel cuts are a target during a budget crisis.

The state government in St. Paul hasn’t made across-the-board staff cuts to balance its budget. Instead, it has left staffing decisions up to individual departments.

Still, since the post-9/11 recession, the ranks of Minnesota’s public employees have shrunken to fewer than 54 full-time workers per 1,000 residents in 2008, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. That’s down from about 56 per 1,000 residents in 2002. And it’s below the national average.

Squeezing fire stations, libraries and park crews
The vast majority of Minnesota’s public employees work for local governments, doing things like teaching school, policing streets and plowing snow. Official numbers aren’t yet available on how many of those jobs were cut in 2009 when the full brunt of the state’s budget crisis hit local governments.

But the League of Minnesota Cities compiled an unofficial database using anecdotal accounts gathered from news reports, meeting records, list serves and other sources. The League also surveys cities for its annual “State of the Cities” reports.

All told, the League’s data makes clear that what happened in Crow Wing County happened across the state as cities laid off some workers, slashed hours for others and left vacant positions unfilled in their police and fire stations, libraries, offices and park maintenance crews.
 
“Cities across the state described reductions to the workforce through layoffs, attrition, and changes in seasonal staffing levels,” the League said in its report for the 2009 fiscal year.

The upshot is that governments are running leaner than before — in many cases, actually doing more with less.

Lean gives way to less
Crow Wing County shows how far that strategy can go before “lean” gives way to “less.” The county has lost more than $3.5 million in state funding since 2008 and expects to lose millions more.

Houle, the county administrator, hasn’t complained about the resulting pressure to retrench.

“We are just piling on if all we do is whine about the fact that we are going to get budget cuts,” he said.

To be sure, the involuntary layoffs of some 25 workers were painful. Another 25 or so jobs were cut through attrition to reduce the county’s staff by more than 10 percent.

But the pressure that comes with a fiscal crisis can be healthy in some respects. People who run businesses get performance evaluations at least monthly every time they look at their profit and loss statements, he said. For governments, that feedback comes only at election time unless they run into a financial crisis such as the one Minnesota is suffering now.

From that perspective, occasional belt tightening is “not a terrible thing,” Houle said.

Mergers and GPS units
Belt tightening tactics in his county have included merging departments and bringing in new technology to cut down on paperwork and streamline operations. For example, foresters have added new efficiencies by using GPS units to mark wooded areas for timber harvesting.

The county outsourced some work (maintaining heating systems) and collaborated with other nearby governments on other functions (cracking down on drunk drivers).

Across-the-board cuts never were an option, Houle said, because some county services are more important than others.

This is where the more-with-less strategy kicks in. As the Great Recession battered the region, the county’s food stamp caseload jumped by 31 percent. Urgent needs for other social services rose in tandem. So the county added staff to meet that demand at the same time it held the line or actually cut spending elsewhere.

Other top priorities that county officials shielded from cutbacks have included maintaining roads and also law and order.

“We have not reduced any patrol officers,” Houle said.

All told, county residents have not lost critical services, he said.

“We’re not getting calls from citizens saying my roads didn’t get plowed…I’m sleeping under a bridge…my car got wrecked by the potholes in your roads,” Houle said.

But, as the county heads into its third year of plummeting state aid, it has largely spent its more-with-less strategies.

Cutting more jobs to the point where the remaining workers have to work overtime wouldn’t make any fiscal sense, Houle said, because taxpayers would end up paying more for less service.

“There are only diminishing returns to the amount you can wring from any organization,” Houle said. “The longer you are at it, the less you can do with restructuring, changing policies and so forth.”

Turning into a rocky road
In his state-of-the county address this month, Houle warned residents of a “rocky road” ahead and invited them to monitor upcoming decisions that inevitably will involve cutting services.

Houle won’t name programs that are vulnerable to the budget ax. That’s to be decided collaboratively with the county board in the light of feedback from residents.

He did predict, though, that some residents definitely will suffer losses.

“Everything we do is important to someone,” Houle said. “Now we are at the point of having to determine what’s more important….I don’t have any illusions about it. We are going to shed services, and a group of constituents will be unhappy.”

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 05/06/2010 - 01:12 pm.

    Sadly, since those to whom our “Conservative” political friends are most in thrall, and of whom our “liberal” political friends are most afraid will not suffer in the least for even this level of cuts. Lacking the ability to feel or express empathy and compassion, they will be completely unaware of the suffering of those in need – even to the extent of people dying on the streets (unless one of those people dies on their own property, in which case they’ll only complain bitterly about the inconvenience).

    More than a few of our state’s less affluent residents will continue to willingly allow themselves to be led into finding ever newer and more creative scapegoats to blame, rather than finally acknowledging the truth: that when it come to the infrastructures that our state tax dollars support, we can not and will never get “more for less.”

    I can only hope that enough of us are finally waking up to that reality that we will ignore the misguided, dis-informational B.S. that will pass for political campaigning this fall and elect enough responsible legislators on both sides of the aisle, and a governor capable of working with both sides of the aisle to allow for the needed compromises to be made which will allow us to move beyond the budget debacle so purposefully and willfully created by King Timmy and his court of lords, ladies and jesters, and thereby allow us to begin to rebuild our state.

    If all the immigrants who represent the REAL threat to our state – those who moved here for the excellent quality of life and educational systems, then immediately started to exert tremendous pressure to reduce the taxes necessary to protect and preserve those very things…

    If all those freeloading wealthy outsiders get their noses out of joint when taxes are restored to the levels they were at before the Moe/Swiggum/Ventura compromise of a few years back, we promise we will not let the door hit them hard enough in their rather substantial posteriors to do them any great damage on their way out.

    Meanwhile, we’ll then be able to return to the attitudes of shared benefit and sacrifice that made Minnesota such a great place to grow up, to live, to work, to get an education, and yes, to start the type of business that might be at the forefront of technology and offer its average workers truly excellent pay and benefits.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 05/07/2010 - 09:07 am.

    Actaully, I have begun to notice some negative effects of reducing government spending and taxation; I’m getting concerned about the mental welfare of some of my leftist friends.

    The normally amusingly inchoate rants I hear on leftist radio and read in the leftist media, blogs and comments have started to take on a decidedly unbalanced tone.

    If you have a leftist loved one, I encourage you to take the time to extend words of comfort to them. Explain to them that Change has come to Anerica, and that everything will be fine.

  3. Submitted by Herbert Davis on 05/08/2010 - 04:36 pm.

    The good part about living in rural MN…

  4. Submitted by Eric Larson on 05/08/2010 - 06:46 pm.

    It’s nice to see journalists and some public officials finally understanding that any cut in state aid does not cause the sky to fall. “Now that wasn’t so hard was it” ——Here is the next baby step. —-“Your all going to come to work next week and do the same incredible efficient and creative problem solving you have been doing since 2002. The dramatic changes you have coped with and even solved has been impressive. But starting next week, you will get 10% less pay and your benefit package is going to be adjusted. We advise you look to your fellow citizens in the private sector to see how they do it. That will be all”.

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 05/10/2010 - 09:11 am.

    Amen Eric.

    Unfortunately, it appears that memo hasn’t been issued just yet…

    “State employees staying in cabins on the lake, enjoying free meals and spending time relaxing during business hours. That is what 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS undercover cameras discovered last week.

    Tax dollars paid to send 250 workers and contractors from the Department of Employment and Economic Development to one of Minnesota’s priciest resorts–Grand View Lodge on the shore of Gull Lake.

    The budget for the event was $50,000. The actual cost won’t likely be known until workers expense their mileage and meals.”

    http://kstp.com/news/stories/S1537226.shtml?cat=5
    ================

    “MN to spend $62M on prime office space in ’10

    Some of the poshest office space includes buildings with views of Lake Superior in Duluth, Hazeltine National in Chaska and St. Paul’s Mears Park.

    In Duluth, the state will pay $2.3 million over the next few years to rent offices in Canal Park for the Pollution Control Agency and the Department of Labor.

    Veteran Duluth realtor Beth Wentzlaff said the state could have spent up to a third less had it leased offices elsewhere in town.

    Of Canal Park she said, “It is unlike any other place in the country actually, so it is a highly sought after space of any kind.”

    The Department of Public Safety is spending $32 million for high-rise offices.

    The Health Department is spending $2.6 million for space in the Golden Rule Building in St. Paul, even though the agency has its own new building down the street.

    This year, 14 agencies will spend more than $1 million each to rent office space.

    5 EYEWITNESS NEWS also found the state is paying more in rent each year, despite the weak real estate market.”

    We’re going to need to cut with a very, very long knife before we get anywhere near “the bone” of the government machine.

  6. Submitted by Charles Turpin on 05/17/2010 - 09:00 am.

    I have a suggestion to make with regard to our budget discussion:

    Rather than ask where can we cut, ask “what services should we eliminate or degrade”.

    The truth is, the services we desire cost money. If the money is not to be had, so be it, but lets talk as we would at home: What services shall we eliminate? What will we do in place of these services? Chicken is too expensive? Than its Mac and Cheese. Snow plowing too expensive? Stay home. Poor people too expensive? Well, now I’m stumped. I truly can’t bring myself to answer this one.

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