County opts for hiring freeze
WORTHINGTON -- After considerable discussion on how to cut nearly $750,000 from the 2011 budget as a result of lost state aid, Nobles County Commissioners Tuesday night ultimately decided to direct department heads to get creative.
With budget talks fast approaching, commissioners planned the special Tuesday evening meeting to be updated on the county program aid forecast, and come to a consensus on how county departments should proceed with their budget plans.
Before moving into their discussion on budget cuts, however, board members decided to hold off on filling the vacant finance director position in the county and, at the same time, implement a hiring freeze for all but essential employees for the remainder of 2010.
"I would like to see us have a finance director ... but, it's just a bad time right now," said Commissioner Diane Thier, who suggested the county-wide hiring freeze.
Any requests to fill vacancies for essential employees will still need to come before the board for approval.
With that decision made, commissioners began discussing ideas to have department heads outline cuts of 10 percent and 15 percent from their budget for 2011. A few department heads in attendance said those cuts would be difficult -- especially after making cuts of similar size in their 2010 budgets.
"They cut all the paperclips last year," said Auditor-Treasurer Sharon Balster. "Now we're talking about the hard part -- employees. People -- that's all that's left."
Lynn Wilson, Nobles County Recorder, said finding 15 percent to cut from her budget would be difficult. She has a staff of three, and while some of the work they do is considered non-essential -- such as offering passport services -- they bring income into the department.
"You're going to have to tell us what makes sense," replied Commissioner David Benson.
County Attorney Gordon Moore said he understands that cuts have to be part of the discussion, but he encouraged commissioners to look at other options.
"I think there are things we can do in the county that can alleviate some of those cuts," said Moore, citing one example that building fund money be used to pay for maintenance projects on county buildings. At this time, maintenance costs are paid for through the county's general fund.
A 15 percent cut to the county attorney's department budget would mean layoffs and work not getting done, he added.
Balster said in her department, it would equate to longer lines.
"Somebody, somewhere, is going to have to hurt," said Commissioner Vern Leistico.
With an annual budget of approximately $23 million, County Administrator Mel Ruppert said commissioners will perhaps need to consider a property tax increase.
"We have a lot of mandates, and the non-mandated items are small and have gotten smaller," he said.
"Even if they're mandated, if we don't have the money, we don't have the money," replied Thier. "Our state and federal (legislators) should listen to that."
Ruppert said a 1 percent levy increase would raise approximately $96,000 in the county. For 2011, the county would need to raise the levy by 7 percent or 8 percent just to maintain existing services. That does not account for pay increases and other factors, such as fluctuations in fuel costs.
"No doubt, the public will be aware of any changes," Ruppert said. "You can't take another $750,000 out of the budget in non-mandated services without those affects.
"The magnitude of what we're looking at is the whole library system, plus perhaps parks," he added.
Commissioners Benson and Gene Foth suggested that perhaps some departments will need to consider reduced hours.
"If we cut hours, the public is not going to be happy," responded Thier.
Tuesday's discussion is just the beginning of 2011 budget talks. More meetings, including those with department heads, will take place later this summer.