The Carlton County Finance Committee is recommending county board approval of a 3.9 percent levy increase for the 2014 budget year starting January 1.
County Board Chair Bob Olean summed up the decision, "County government has been in a holding pattern since the economic downturn of 2008. Many departments have lost people to retirements and have not had the positions refilled. After years of salary freezes, the new contracts for 2013 and 2014 were settled on a total package of 4.04 percent COLA (cost of living adjustment). We could draw from fund balances and address the issue next year. Realistically, but also reluctantly, a levy increase is the prudent move to make."
Budget staff from the auditor's office were at the meeting of the Finance Committee to lay out the pros and cons of each possible budget choice. They explained that the 4.04 percent employee contract settlement for two years in reality was an increase of about 4 percent in the proposed new levy in real dollars. This left the county budget operating at current levels without considering any new staff or any new developing program needs. There was a 2.9 percent increase in the county levy last year with no salary increases.
Commissioner Gary Peterson, the second commissioner on the committee, commented, "There is misinformation in the community that the State Legislature gave the county more money for this budget cycle. In fact, more program burdens have been moved onto the county's responsibility without all the necessary funding."
The county does have a positive fund balance currently. It was pointed out that these balances would fund county government at current levels for three and one-half to four months. This level of fund balances is considered adequate but not in excess according to the state auditor.
County Coordinator Dennis Genereau explained, "We need foresight and planning for the next five to 10 to 20 years. The delivery of county government services is changing dramatically. Not all county business can be done through the computer. Personal contact on the phone or over the counter in the county departments will still continue with a sizeable portion of county residents. Staff and therefore budgeted salaries will continue indefinitely. But the salaries must be competitive with those offered in other government services or in the private sector so that we can hire and hold onto able, qualified staff people."
He continued, "We need a human resources administrator to handle our personnel issues. It is long overdue. Money needs to be set aside for remodeling the current courthouse. It is the oldest courthouse in Minnesota without major remodeling work. Security concerns and infrastructure work with wiring, plumbing, etc. is long overdue. Some ask the question, 'Why do we spend so much money on the local court system?' We have no choice. The law requires us to provide these services. With planning we can make investments in the current courthouse and systematically work through these issues."
Genereau proposed an expanded role for the Finance Committee. "I see this as an implementation goal for 2014," he said. "Departments will be brought in to explain their needs and changing program each year with a look at a five-year plan. With the budget as a guide, staff or program additions will get their first airing in this committee before they are proposed to the board as a whole. Process, oversight, and planning is the goal. This proposal itself, of course, needs board approval."
County Engineer Mike Tardy commented, "Proposing new staff for those of us that have worked with budget and staffing needs for a long time is a sobering responsibility. Hiring someone and then having the responsibility of laying them off somewhere down the line is a painful process for both worker and supervisor. Let's not spend or not generate enough revenue so that we are forced to cut staff in the future. Nobody wants to be in that situation."
Commissioner Peterson went on to say, "Several of the surrounding counties have set a budget with a zero percent increase. In reality, they are drawing from budget reserves to do this. This will limit their choices to address future needs. This approach would do a disservice to the people of Carlton County."