Government officials across the southern metro area are being warned that the home-foreclosure mess is deepening, creating serious questions as to what they can or should do about it in a year when they themselves face exceptionally tight budgets.

The increase in the number of sheriff's sales in Dakota County from last year to this year is expected to be almost as great as the total number of sheriff's sales in 2006, that county's board is being told.

And the board in Scott County was informed this week that foreclosure numbers there are expected to double this year over last, after having doubled from the year before -- and that it is likely to be a couple of years before they stabilize.

"It is a daunting task," said Mary Monteith, assistant director of the Carver County Community Development Agency, which works with Scott County on these issues. "Some days we look at each other and ask, 'Why do we do this?'"

Scott County Commissioner Jon Ulrich told Monteith:

"My impression is that your caseload far exceeds your ability to respond. We're taking a sip out of a fire hydrant of water. And time is not on anyone's side -- not the homeowner's, and not the lender's."

Monteith said it's vital to get word out that help is available for people sliding into crisis. And the earlier they take steps to respond, the better, she said. It's even possible for government agencies to assemble packages of financial help to get homeowners through temporary crises.

In an interview on Wednesday, she stressed that money is not being handed out willy-nilly.

"We will not put public money in unless we are satisfied that the hardship has been overcome and can be shown -- on paper, in black and white -- that they can now afford that mortgage."

Both Scott and Dakota are among the state's most affluent counties. As recently as 2001, there were fewer than 200 sheriff's sales of foreclosed properties in Dakota.

There were just fewer than 1,600 sheriff's sales in 2007, with some of the highest rates being in Farmington, South St. Paul and West St. Paul.

The fallout is hitting homeowners' associations, which are seeing dues go unpaid; cities, which are dealing with unpaid utility bills and unmowed lawns; and neighborhoods, which are seeing property values pulled down because of foreclosures, Dakota County analysts said.

As the market corrects itself and there are more foreclosures, more residents will be moving into apartments, they said. Perhaps that could help decrease rents, which in 2007 averaged $1,200 for a three-bedroom apartment.

In Scott, meanwhile, Monteith said Wednesday that sheriff's sales have zoomed from 328 in 2006 to 606 last year and are expected to top 1,240 this year, without relenting anytime soon.

The No. 1 reason, her staff believes, is poor money management: people who take on more than they can afford. But that accounted for only about a fifth of May's cases. Other reasons included loss of a job, divorce, medical costs, failed business ventures and mortgage products such as refinancings that people didn't understand.

"People will sign anything you put in front of them; it's amazing," she told Scott commissioners. "They beat themselves up when they realize they didn't trust their gut instincts." 952-882-9023 • 952-882-9016