Commissioners review budget but find less support for more cuts | BrainerdDispatch.com | Brainerd, Minnesota

Commissioners review budget but find less support for more cuts

Crow Wing County

Posted: December 20, 2011 - 11:26pm

Last week’s Crow Wing County budget discussion was an example of the “beauty or the barnacles” of operating in a public forum or a blind-siding action that had members questioning the timing.

Tuesday commissioners met as a committee and considered the budget cuts Chairman Paul Thiede suggested at the Dec. 13 regular board session. Thiede proposed cutting an additional $769,000 from a $34.8 million tax levy. The proposed 2012 tax levy is a 2.37 percent reduction from 2011.

The proposed plan for additional cuts came on the day the board traditionally adopted the final budget, which has been in the works for months. Tuesday’s conversations were at times testy and had Attorney Don Ryan occasionally acting as translator between the board and financial staff.

Thiede said the laws that require board members to meet in a public setting made it a challenge to provide information to all five commissioners. Thiede said he wasn’t trying to blindside anyone, but always said his philosophy was the board needed to look at opportunities to reduce the budget and he wasn’t afraid to raise the issue.

“Far from leading someone to believe I am apologetic for the action that I took last Tuesday I want to say I believe it has again heightened the discussion that I think is necessary for us to continue,” Thiede said. “That’s the process we go through. ... It isn’t always neat and pretty to watch.”

“You apparently felt it was totally appropriate and good timing... It didn’t feel all that good for me,” said Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom, adding if she was in staff’s shoes she would have wanted to jump out the window. Nystrom said the more ideas the better. “The question is the timing. You thought that was fine. I didn’t think it was fine.”

Mike Carlson, finance director, said his largest frustration is bridging the gap between commission members who serve on the budget committee and the rest of the board. Auditor-Treasurer Laureen Borden suggested the personnel and budget committee be combined so all commissioners are present for the discussions to avoid the same situation in the future.

A conversation with a good friend who cut his staff from 19 to 10 and then down to three before Christmas was one of the reasons he made the recommendations, Thiede said, adding he wasn’t trying to blindside anyone but the board needed to look at opportunities to reduce the budget.

Thiede said unfortunately, or fortunately depending on perspective, the board operates in a public forum and can’t call each other and go around that, which he described as the “beauty or the barnacles of the process.”

“We don’t have the luxury of being able to talk to each other in all cases about how we are bringing this through,” Thiede said.

“You can dodge behind the open meeting law but I don’t think that’s the issue here,” Nystrom said, noting there were numerous regular meetings and committee meetings where they could have talked. “I think that’s disingenuous. That conversation could have happened a month ago, two months ago.”

For additional cuts, Thiede suggested removing $5,000 from a request for additional funding at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport. It was the only cut the board expressed consensus to approve.

Other suggested cuts included removing $500,000 from the capital planning, cutting $125,000 from a two-year program giving qualifying employees the option of taking a payout instead of vacation days, and cutting $56,000 from library funding.

Ryan said the eight attorneys in his office, including himself, handle the equivalent case load of offices that have nine to 14 attorneys and have to cover four to seven courtrooms and hearing rooms simultaneously along with additional duties. Thiede first asked staff to draft an amendment to cut the attorney position prompting Nystrom and Commissioner Phil Trusty to ask whether he planned to ask the other board members what they supported. Commissioner Doug Houge said he believed the addition was justified looking at the information. Thiede said it was then obvious the support wasn’t there for an amendment.

Thiede was opposed to payouts for vacation days.

“It’s a wage and salary increase when it ought to be a time off issue,” Thiede said, adding if this issue couldn’t be addressed properly he would probably vote against the entire package saying people need to take time away from the job. “I feel very strongly about that.”

Commissioner Rosemary Franzen said she was in favor of keeping the payouts as stepping back now could affect the human resource director’s credibility as the benefit has addressed the option in negotiations. The county reported a handful of employees are at their maximum for paid time off.

For the $500,000 cut, the board majority was in favor of putting the money in the fund (which has about $4 million in it) as a savings for future expenditures, but were not earmarking it for any particular project.

On capital planning, Ryan said the money was not tied to any particular building project, such as the Law Enforcement Center or additional storage space. Those would be separate conversations, he said.

The proposed tax levy $34,876,657 for 2012 is a 2.37 percent reduction from 2011, which is a decrease of $845,039. The county’s budget grew from $67,491,709 in 2011 to $70,464,618 proposed for 2012. If the levy is approved, it is the second straight year of reductions.

The county board is expected to make a decision on its budget at its Dec. 27 meeting. The budget must be adopted by Dec. 28.

RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5852.