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County department heads roll up their sleeves on the 2009 budget

The Wadena County Board called county department heads to a joint budget meeting July 17 to work on setting a 2009 budget within the 3.9 percent levy limit the Minnesota Legislature mandated this year.

Commissioner Orv Meyer said department heads need to realize the seriousness of the situation he believes is about to happen. Inflation is going up, the dollar value is going down, and the housing market continues to crash, he said. Cass County has already laid off six people.

"We have to think about what's going to happen to Wadena County," Meyer said.

Preliminary budget requests from Wadena County department heads indicate the county will have a formidable challenge in creating a 2009 budget that will meet the $305,000 increase the levy limit allows while covering the cost of rising fuel costs and other needs of the departments.

This spring, county commissioners directed department heads to present a zero percent increase in their budgets if possible, but most were unable to meet that goal.

Sheriff Mike Carr requested a significant increase in funding largely to meet the cost of out-of-county prisoner boarding. For 2009 he requested $225,000 compared to the $122,000 budgeted in 2008 for the costs. The 2009 increase is an attempt to meet the actual costs of prisoner boarding, which have far exceeded the previous years' budgets. So far this year the county has already spent $125,000 for out-of-county boarding, Carr said, which is $3,000 more than the entire budget for 2008. A lot of that comes from January and February when the jail had 19 prisoners boarded out at any given time, Carr said.

Commissioner Bill Stearns said he would have appreciated it if Carr had set a higher budget last year when the county didn't have a levy limit.

"This one item is taking a third of the total money available to the county next year," Stearns said.

Carr explained that last year he doubled the 2007 budget of $61,000 to get the $122,000 amount.

"It's such a crapshoot," Carr said. "It's like gambling."

Either the county builds a jail or it has to house out, Carr said. Housing out is cheaper.

Another large increase in Carr's budget is due to fuel costs. He doubled the $30,000 fuel budget for 2008 to $60,000 for 2009. He used the previous year's mileage at a projected rate of $4.25 per gallon to calculate the amount.

The sheriff's department's total preliminary budget is $1,741,036, including jail costs, an increase of $200,508 over 2008.

Wadena County Social Services also presented the board with a significant increase in its budget request, but was able to shrink the amount by $110,000 during the budget meeting. Social Services Director Paul Sailer recommended the county not use a $70,000 exception to the levy limit for child welfare targeted case management.

"I see no reason for us to put the burden of the targeted case management on our local tax payers," he said.

He said the county could use the $90,000 of revenue it will earn through July 2009 and argue with legislators the next session to find state funds to support this mandated program.

Commissioners also agreed to use $40,000 of its additional county program aid to fund the increase in the community corrections budget for out-of-home placements.

Sailer did recommend the county use the exception to the levy limit to fund the child support program, which will amount to a 1.1 to 1.2 increase above the 3.9 percent levy. Social services will continue to run more numbers and, hopefully, will be accommodate it a little better, he said.

Sailer emphasized that the county has experienced recessions before and he has found that they can be an opportunity to get creative.

The initial budget Sailer arrived with showed a 20.5 percent increase in the social services levy amounting to $345,000. He does not pay much attention to the first draft of the budget because it generally goes down before the final budget is adopted, he said. Social services doesn't always get all its numbers in a timely manner from the state.

Last year his preliminary budget showed a 19.5 percent increase and that went down to 3.5 percent, Sailer said.

At $51,325, Veterans Services Office David Anderson's 2009 preliminary budget is much smaller than social services or the sheriff's department, but it also shows a large increase after commissioners extended his hours to be open Fridays. Anderson is projecting a 15.6 percent increase for his 2009 budget. He is still fine-tuning the numbers, he said.

Auditor Char West's budget also showed an increase mainly due to two days of additional staff hours allocated to her office. Her 2009 preliminary net budget is $532,420 compared to $522,255 in 2008.

West's budget did not include any cost of living adjustment or step increases, following the board's direction to not include those in preliminary budgets. Many department heads completed their budgets prior to receiving this direction, however, and included them in their initial estimates.

While most departments did not meet the board's challenge of having a zero percent increase in their budgets, two exceeded the challenge. The county attorney's office and the management of information systems department both proposed budgets that were less than their 2008 amounts.

County Attorney Kyra Ladd requested a net budget of $230,330.69, which is $13,000 less than her 2008 budget. The major decrease occurred in the portion of budget that covers trial expenses. She is estimating $5,000 for general trial expenses, $5,000 for a meth manufacturing trial and $10,000 for a criminal vehicular homicide trial. This is a $10,000 decrease in the miscellaneous portion of her budget, she said.

MIS Director Kevin Stensrude requested a 6.98 percent decrease in his budget.

Additional preliminary budget information included:

• The Wadena County Public Health requested a 2 percent increase in its budget.

• Wadena County Highway Engineer Joel Ulring requested a $125,000 increase in money allocated to his department. A lot of increases came in the maintenance division. Ulring requested his budget for diesel fuel be raised from $110,000 to $225,000 to meet increased fuel prices. He proposed an increase in his gravel stabilization chemical allocation from $6,500 in 2008 to $40,000 in 2009. The chemical will allow for less road grading, he said. Ulring also asked for an $85,000 increase for equipment purchases.

• Solid Waste and Planning and Zoning Director Deana Skov requested a total of $6,038 more this year for the parks, planning and zoning, GIS, recycling and solid waste budgets.

• The county allocated $75,000 to cover the cost of providing defense attorneys for child in need of protective services cases. The state recently transferred this mandate to the county.

• The Wadena County Extension office requested an increase of $18,650 largely to cover a half-time staff person it is requesting.

• The maintenance department proposed an $11,000 increase in its budget.

• The assessors office's proposed an increase from $359,177 in 2008 to $375,673 in 2008.

• The recorder's office requested a 9 percent increase in its budget. Its 2008 net budget was $46,075 and Recorder Soledad Henriksen is proposing a net budget of $50,232 for 2009.

The budget requests are preliminary and may be cut during subsequent county board budget meetings prior to adoption for 2009.