Hennepin Co. budget contains no joy for anyoneby Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
The Hennepin County Board of Commissioners has passed a $1.7 billion budget for 2009. Like many local governments, the county has tried to compensate for decreases in state and federal aid by raising property taxes. But property owners will likely not feel as much pain as the people who rely on the county for crucial social services.
Minneapolis, Minn. — There's no joy in the 2009 budget, says Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat. Taxpayers face a total tax increase of 2.4 percent; more than 200 full-time county jobs will be eliminated; many vendor contracts will be reduced and/or cut and the county will close three service centers on Saturdays.
But Opat said the county will still maintain its core functions.
"This board is unwilling to forfeit the future and I think where you see that in the budget is we did not reduce library hours, in fact we grew them this last year," he said. "We haven't reduced lane miles in the county roads. We're still going to plow the roads. We're still going to maintain the roads."
The county has already lost about $15 million in federal and state funding. Due to state budget woes, county officials expect more aid cuts to come soon. That poses a particularly difficult challenge for the county, says Hennepin County Board Chair Randy Johnson.
"I often hear, especially from some folks in my district, that, 'Well the county just has to tighten its belt like families and businesses,'" Johnson said. "And I try to remind folks that Hennepin County is in many business lines where the demand for the services we're required to provide increases when times are economic times are tough."
Besides maintaining roads, operating a hospital, 41 libraries and the largest local corrections system in the state, the county also administers services to people on government assistance.
The county is seeing a record number of people applying for food stamps and emergency shelter as more people lose their jobs and housing.
The number of families who use county services has grown this year from 18,000 to more than 24,000 per month, according to Bill Brumfield, the area director of human services and public health for Hennepin County.
"You can see the increase in that is huge, and that creates a lot of stress on our employees," Brumfield said. "Because our employee base has not changed. We're down one employee from last year's number, and the reason we're only down one is because we're a critical function. The safety net is what we have to provide."
Workers will still be able to help the people who need county services, Brumfield said. But those people will likely face longer waits in county offices.
The county is seeing another sign of hard times at the Hennepin County Medical Center. The hospital has experienced an increase in patients with little or no health insurance. Brumfield says the county cannot refuse treatment to someone because they can't pay for it. And, he said the county is bracing for state and federal cuts to medical assistance.
"The medical areas are obviously going to be targets for some reductions," Brumfield said. "It's a very expensive thing, one of the largest programs we have is medical assistance - federal medical assistance. The state is going to be looking for those big items like that. There are a number of things they can do: change benefit sets, reduce eligibility."
Some of those cuts in state aid may come as soon as this week. State legislators are trying to fix a $426 million gap in the state's current budget and many expect lawmakers to reduce the amount of aid due to local governments by the end of the year. County officials say if that happens, they'll have to reopen the 2009 budget early next year and make more cuts.
- Morning Edition, 12/17/2008, 6:20 a.m.