County agencies face budget challengesTwo of the largest Washington County departments expect flat or decreased budgets next year even as requests for services and mandated costs are predicted to increase.
By: Scott Wente, Woodbury Bulletin
Two of the largest Washington County departments expect flat or decreased budgets next year even as requests for services and mandated costs are predicted to increase.
The down economy has led more people to seek government assistance – from food stamps to health programs – putting increased pressure on the county’s community services department, which expects to have a smaller operating budget next year than in 2009.
At the same time, the sheriff’s office faces its own budget challenges. The need for medical and mental health services by jail inmates is up and the department faces unpredictable fuel costs for its patrol vehicles. Sheriff Bill Hutton said that complicates a 2010 budget that is projected to be just above what is being spent this year.
Department officials outlined each budget plan at a Wednesday, Sept. 8 County Board meeting. The budgets are drafted within levy guidelines set by county commissioners.
The community services agency proposes to spend $39.2 million next year, down from this year’s $40.6 million budget. The department receives funding from a number of sources. Property tax revenue makes up the largest share of the budget, at 43 percent; levy revenue for the department is projected to decrease by 4.5 percent from this year’s level.
Requests for services administered by the county, including medical coverage for the poor, have increased this year and are expected to go up again in 2010, Washington County Community Services director Dan Papin said.
Still, Papin said his agency cannot add staffing to accommodate the growth in application requests, so the time it takes to process those requests will lengthen. In some cases it could take months to approve or deny requests, he said, and during that time the services are not available for those who eventually are determined eligible.
“That doesn’t make sense,” Papin said in an interview, “but what’s the alternative?”
Community services came in with a smaller budget for next year in part because it lost out on $1.7 million in state aid when Gov. Tim Pawlenty unilaterally cut spending to balance the state budget.
To cut costs, the department proposes to end a contract with Human Services Inc. for chemical dependency treatment. Papin said county staff will provide those services, ultimately saving $250,000.
“We figured out we can do it cheaper ourselves,” he said.
‘A difficult task’
The sheriff said medical costs incurred by jail inmates is a growing expense for his office. More than 75 percent of inmates do not carry health insurance, and the sheriff’s office is responsible for buying medications and paying for medical treatments for inmates.
“We have a significant increase in the number of individuals that are coming through our doors that need medical attention,” Hutton said.
For instance, the number of drug prescriptions needed by inmates has more than doubled since 2007. Some 450 prescriptions were needed monthly in 2008. Those needs are not projected to drop.
A new state law has made it easier for the sheriff’s office to acquire prescriptions at a lower cost, Hutton noted.
Hutton’s proposed 2010 budget is $26.6 million. His office’s 2009 spending level was set at 25.9 million. However, he called the 2010 budget “a cut” because it is less than he had originally planned to spend this year, before commissioners trimmed spending to adjust for state-aid reductions.
Hutton said the unpredictability of some of his office’s expenses will make 2010 a challenge. He has cut back on staff training, delayed new squad car purchases and trimmed other expenses.
“It’s a very difficult task,” he said.