Budget 2001 (2% or 4%?)
County Manager Paul Kirkwold presented the 2001 budget at the July 25 Board meeting. Mary Lynn Smith (Star Tribune 7/26/00) reported that "Kirkwold surprised County Commissioners Tuesday when he recommended a $459 million budget for next year that would require a 4.8 percent increase in the property tax levy—more than twice what Commissioners wanted." Kirkwold defended his position explaining that over 87% of the Budget is for program and services that are mandated to some degree by the state and federal governments. The article continued that nearly 70% of the county's expenditures are needed for human services, public safety and the court system. "Those costs are going up and it's something we can't be lax on because it will make this a less attractive place to live," Kirkwold said. Along with the 4.8% budget, the Commissioners asked Kirkwold to prepare a bare minimum budget with just a 2% levy increase. Commissioners complimented Kirkwold on the layout of the budget plan of mandatory and discretionary items, and the fact that he consulted with department heads for their priority of line items to cut.
As responsible as the budget is, Janice still sees it as an increase that many citizens in her district cannot afford. "If you're working a minimum-wage job earning $8,000 to $10,000 a year, that becomes a huge chunk when combined with other taxing jurisdictions and property values escalating to come out of people's pockets," Rettman said.
"We talk about [providing] affordable housing (see next article) and then we tax people who have the least.... I have to say whoa."
August 15 and 16 arrived and the Commissioners started discussing departments' budgets item by item. Stressful as it was, the Commissioners did make cuts and increased fees to avoid increasing the tax levy. Pioneer Press (8/16/00) reported that $566,352 will be raised in new and increased fees. Decreased services in home care nursing in high rises was postponed until the final budget review. The hope is that monies can be found to continue this service even though it is a discretionary one that was figured to be cut. The Sheriff's department, as well as the County Attorney's office, did take cuts. County Attorney Susan Gaertner warned (Star Tribune 8/17/00) that the smaller spending increases would reduce the number of criminal cases she could prosecute next year. Accepting the 2% budget would eliminate a 4-year-old program to reduce nuisance properties, cut legal services for child protection and reduce the number of staff members assigned to collect child support payments. By the afternoon session of August 16, most Commissioners were expressing the "pain" in each cut. Commissioner Wiessner perhaps described it best as "gut wrenching." August 29 and 30 proved to be more of the same—pain and wrench. That was the Community Human Services (CHS) day with the process becoming the most intense. "Letters to the editors," "Opinions," "Editorials," letters to the office, e-mails and calls to Commissioners pleaded that services for seniors, children, mentally ill and developmentally disabled remain the same or increase.
What appeared as under control (the Budget) and on its way to completion and a reduction to somewhere between 2% and 4.2% tax levy as max, took on a human face of those whose safety net would shrink. On August 29, the Board chambers was filled to capacity of those that needed to tell their stories—the human side—of what would happen if dollars that supported mental health and the other 60 critically needed programs were reduced. The arguments were strong and convincing that such deep cuts in the Apollo program would devastate and wipe out a program that is essential for them to live their lives. Commissioner Rafael Ortega made a motion to restore $1.8 million to CHS's budget. The crowd makeup disturbed Commissioner Ortega who said, (Pioneer Press, 8/30/00) "…many smaller groups do not have the resources to lobby effectively. These are groups 'who don't have clout,' and many supply services to minorities and women. We need to look at the entire fabric of our human services rather than just those with effective lobbies," he said.
As to dollars and programs to be restored, the Commissioners instructed Tom Fashingbauer, Director CHS, to meet with the Commissioners individually for their input, and to contact the many agencies impacted to find out their bare minimum level needed to still produce services. Fashingbauer returned on September 8 with the new budget for CHS. Janice made it clear to Fashingbauer that this is his task as Director of CHS.
Janice still cannot support this budget. "The tax levy dollars are being taken from those who can least afford it; those that are on fixed incomes or social security. If you do the math, you will see that low-income people will just be going further in the red. What we are doing is increasing the burden where it can be least supported."
There is some hope that needed programs will have a future beyond one year. The leadership of the agencies said that they would be willing to work with CHS and the Board by going to the state and federal governments to lobby for appropriate funding from them. These services need a stable and much fuller funding source. Property taxes are not the dollars that should be being used. Tax rebates are popular and ignore the critical question of balance of an appropriate level of mandated services with spending.
Janice met with Director Tom Fashingbauer and restated that she believes that cuts could still be made within the entire county budget. She would not have restored $1 million and would have reallocated the new found $800,000 to restore programs like Apollo and would have taken a major cut out of the planning and administrative budgets of CHS.
When talking with County Manager, Paul Kirkwold, Janice said, "A 4+% increase in the levy is not acceptable. Originally I agreed with the other Commissioners to look at a 0 to 2% levy increase. In the future, I guess 0% is the only real figure to be looking at. I am comfortable with the 2% and could support that, but I realistically know that I am only one vote. Combine the proposed school levy, as well as the watershed, and now this! And, those that are retired and on fixed incomes and those that are working at below living wage jobs cannot afford a tax increase of $100-$200. Believe me, the levy and the changed valuation are going to push it that high. For those that are living in just a basic house in Frogtown, Midway, and the North End will have to go without basics—food and prescriptions—and that's wrong! I see savings of $2 million within the overall budget and I strongly believe that we could have come in at the 2% level."
Janice's comment just after the overall vote was, " I think we are being weak-kneed on this."
Author: Commissioner Rettman's Office / Information Services