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.