In Nicollet County, shutdown could take heavy tollby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Peter, Minn. — If you want a sense of how nervous Minnesotans might be getting over the pending state government shutdown, St. Peter, Minn. is a good place to start.
The city of 11,000 people on the Minnesota River is the seat of Nicollet County, which has a larger share of state workers than any other county in Minnesota. Local economies will likely suffer a loss in the event of a shutdown, and that's especially true here, where state government jobs accounted for 9 percent of all employment last year.
The state average is less than 2 percent.
St. Peter, in southern Minnesota, is known mainly as a college town, because it's home to well-known private school Gustavus Adolphus. But there's another big industry here. On the city's south end highway signs point the way to the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center.
John Knobbe, one of them, says talk of a shutdown is causing workers a variety of emotions.
"Nervous, uncertain," says Knobbe. "People just want to know what's coming and how it's going to work."
All workers have received layoff notices, he said. He keeps close tabs on what the employees think through his position as vice president/administration for Local 404 of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Knobbe works at the Minnesota Security Hospital, which houses many convicted sexual predators, and by itself accounts for about 80 percent of the jobs at the regional treatment center. He says many hospital workers will have to be kept on during a shutdown to provide daily patient care and security. But he says that still leaves many employees who could be jobless on July 1.
"Worst case scenario I could see half our staff gone," says Knobbe.
He says if that happens there will be economic impacts for the region, and security concerns at the hospital. He wonders if a reduced work force dealing with the same number of patients can keep everything under control.
The workers at the treatment center aren't the only positions in jeopardy in Nicollet County. There are also state employees who work in the court system, highway maintenance, natural resources and other areas.
In all, the county has about 1,200 non-education state government jobs. Their pay accounts for 12 percent of all wages paid in Nicollet County. St. Peter city administrator Todd Prafke says a shutdown would have an economic impact here.
"It's jobs and paychecks and paying utility bills and signing your kids up for t-ball and paying the local water softener or whatever," Prafke said. "All of those things have an impact."
Prafke said a shutdown lasting only a few days would have minimal effects, but if it stretches out longer the impacts will grow. He says he's also concerned that a budget deal could lead to a permanent downsizing of the state workforce, something he says could deal the region's economy a long-lasting blow.
But at the hardware store downtown, owner Dave Neiman says jobs cuts are probably likely given the scale of the state's $5 billion budget deficit. He says he's against raising taxes to reach a budget deal. Neiman doesn't want to see anyone lose his job, but says that sort of economic pain may be necessary for the state to balance its budget.
"When our revenues dipped here in the store, we had to reduce our staff, and we had to reduce our payroll," says Neiman. "It wasn't fun, it wasn't something I enjoyed but it was something that was necessary if I wanted to keep employing the other people."
The question for Neiman and other employers in Nicollet County is whether a state shutdown would cause enough of a financial squeeze that he and others have to lay off employees again.
- Morning Edition, 06/16/2011, 7:25 a.m.