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County officials struggling with what to cut

Carol Vlaminck, an employee with the Kandiyohi County License Bureau, left center, assists Elyse Dowdell on Tuesday as Dowdell gets new tags for her vehicle. Kandiyohi County is facing a massive funding shortfall over the next two years and although officials don't yet know what may be cut or eliminated, they are looking at programs and services that are safety-related and those that directly affect the public. The license bureau was one of many programs or services debated Tuesday during a cost-cutting ...

WILLMAR -- Kandiyohi County will have to work harder than ever and be more innovative than ever as it wrestles with its share of a $100 million state budget unallotment to Minnesota counties.

But with severe cutbacks in state funding, some county programs and services will not survive, officials said Tuesday.

"Some things are going to go away. We just know that," said Larry Kleindl, Kandiyohi County administrator.

County department heads took the first steps in prioritizing what's most important. During a four-hour session led by facilitators from the University of Minnesota Extension Service, they reviewed every county program, from law enforcement and emergency management to public health, family services, public works, the recorder's office and the license bureau.

Two things were clear: The county provides a complex and diverse array of services, and many services are required, leaving no quick or easy solution to the budget dilemma.

"I don't know what we can cut," said Tim Falkum, the county assessor. "Everything we do is mandatory, or nearly everything."

Department heads will be forced to start sharpening their pencils this week as the budgeting process for 2010 gets under way. Kleindl said all the departments will be asked to keep their levy request for next year at a zero percent increase or less -- not including inflation or pay increases.

"You basically are going to be asked to make between a 2 and 3 percent reduction in your overall budget," he said. Revenue-earning departments that have seen a loss of revenue may have to make even larger budget reductions, he said.

Meetings also are starting this week with union representatives to start exploring options such as furloughs and pay freezes.

Kleindl said the county already cut back last year on its hiring and has not filled several vacant positions.

"We've already started the downsizing. ... Many departments are working short already," he said.

The big question for Kandiyohi County is how to move forward when it's facing the loss of $329,000 in state funding this year and more than $660,000 next year, Kleindl said.

"We still have to operate and do business in the county. We still have to buy equipment when it breaks down. ... We can't stop functioning," he said.

Toby Spangler, one of the facilitators for Tuesday's session, said studies that have looked at the impact of government shortfalls have found that across-the-board budget cuts generally don't work.

"You're ahead of the game. You've been very thoughtful and intentional," he told Kandiyohi County officials.

It's not known yet which county programs or services might be targeted for cutbacks. Among the priorities identified on Tuesday were programs that are safety-related and programs that directly affect the public.

To add to the decision-making challenge, many county services are interrelated. For instance, reducing or eliminating a Family Services program to prevent school truancy could result in a higher burden on the county attorney's juvenile justice division and possibly higher costs for out-of-home placement.

Many key departments, such as the Sheriff's Office, also are resource-intensive.

"Law enforcement's not a cheap project," said Sheriff Dan Hartog. "We do bring in some revenue, but there's a lot of costs to what we do."

County Commissioner Harlan Madsen voiced frustration with how the state budget shortfall has placed counties against a fiscal brick wall.

"The individuals sitting in this room are innovative. They are creative. They did not create -- I repeat, they did not create -- the catastrophe we're facing," he said. "The Legislature has to learn there are limits."

A big concern for county officials is the public's level of awareness and whether county residents are ready to accept the potential loss of some services.

"They don't have a full picture. If that program is cut, it's going to touch someone they know," said Trisha Appeldorn, veterans service officer.

Public education will be needed, agreed Jay Kieft, director of Kandiyohi County Family Services.

"We can do a better job of telling people who we are and what we do," he said.

It also could be a chance to streamline, develop new ways to provide services and forge more partnerships and collaboration.

Madsen urged a culture change in how Kandiyohi County does business.

"We can be leaders and we can be innovators," he said.

Kleindl said afterward that the session was "very helpful."

"It got people to start looking within," he said. "It really is an opportunity to do things differently."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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