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Washington County cuts 21 staff positions

In an effort to make up for recently projected shortfalls in its 2009 budget, the Washington County Board of Commissioners voted 5-0 Tuesday to reduce county staff by 21 positions.

The impact of the elimination of 21 positions amounts to a savings of nearly $1.5 million, a little less than half the expected $3.2 million budget reduction the county plans to make over the next several weeks.

All but two of the positions were left vacant after county administrator Jim Schug instructed department heads to enact an informal hiring freeze late last year when it was learned the county would face state aid cuts and experience a loss in revenue, all the result of an economic downturn.

"It's our expectation that the action taken today in that first round of cuts really helps us deal with what we know right now in terms of the Governor's proposed (budget) recommendation and anticipated cut in county program aid," Schug said.

Reductions in county revenue have also contributed to the deficit, with much of the loss in revenue coming from a sharp decrease in real estate transactions that generated considerable fees for the county, Schug said. The county has also experienced a decrease in activity at its three license centers and also some reduction in its fees collection and investment income.

The 21 full-time positions staff reduction will span the county's various departments.

The sheriff's department (elimination of four positions) and public works will take the biggest hits (elimination of 4.28 positions) their respective staff. The county will reduce its court security staff by three positions, which comes out of the general operations portion of the budget. Other position eliminations will come from IT (3.0), administration (1.0), library (0.5), community services (0.8) and public health (0.5).

Upon their decision, county commissioners expressed gratitude to county department heads and staff for understanding the situation.

"These are not painless cuts," said commissioner Gary Kriesel of Stillwater. "What we're asking is other employees to pick up this workload, and we have outstanding employees and staff that I'm sure will meet these challenges."

Commissioner Lisa Weik acknowledged the cuts may have an impact on services for residents.

"You may see longer waits in the license centers or re-shelving materials in the library," said Weik, who represents much of Woodbury. "Things may not be as accessible. We would ask for your patience and support as we ride out this economy."

Board chair Myra Peterson said she hopes the board's difficult decision to cut its staff size presents an opportunity for the state to redesign they way it works with counties in delivery of services through unfunded mandates and maintenance of effort. The state mandates the county service residents with many programs in public health and community services, but does not fund those programs.

"We are the state's partner, and the property tax payer should not always pick up the problems that the state has in their budget," Peterson said. "I hope that we take this opportunity and the Legislature takes this opportunity to look at their processes so that it's not always the burden of our public service and our staff."

More budget reduction decisions to come

Administrator Schug informed the board that it will be faced in the coming weeks with other budget reduction actions that will likely include recommendations to eliminate some of its service contracts that could impact services for organizations like 4-H.

For the second week in a row, several members and supporters of 4-H in Washington County were in attendance and spoke against a county staff recommendation for the board to include in its budget reduction elimination of a $131,000 services contract with the University of Minnesota Extension Service to fund two coordinator positions for 4-H.

Commissioner Peterson thanked those who spoke in support of continued funding for the 4-H coordinator positions and reminded those in attendance that the official discussion and decision on the elimination of the services contract will come later this month.