The rainy day fund for Hennepin County is trickling down to its lowest amount in recent history.
To boost staffing for programs like child protection or, just this week, a youth sex-trafficking pilot prevention program, the county has been tapping its contingency fund, which started the year at $8 million — the lowest number in at least a decade.
“We don’t have quite as much room to spare,” said Commissioner Jan Callison, who chairs the County Board. “It does constrain our options … especially in uncertain times.”
Hennepin County’s $1.9 billion budget is second only in size to the state’s budget. Normally, the county’s contingency budget is several million dollars higher; in 2012, it almost reached $23 million.
The fund’s low ebb concerns some county commissioners like Callison, especially in light of President Donald Trump’s proposed budget unveiled this week that calls for cuts to programs that could force counties to pick up funding gaps.
The county initially proposed a $13 million contingency fund, but that dropped to $8 million at the start of the year after $5 million was withdrawn for a $13 million child protection reform plan, which includes hiring more than 100 staffers.
The fund has now dropped to $7.3 million after the county spent $750,000 on pay raises for Sheriff’s Office deputies over a two-year period, and this week’s approval of two new staff members for a sex-trafficking pilot prevention program — which was actually cut in half from the four staffers initially proposed.
Other county leaders aren’t as concerned as Callison.
“I’ve always thought our contingency budget is too big,” said Commissioner Jeff Johnson, often the lone board dissenter on spending votes. “It’s almost an invitation for us to spend more money … it’s been less about emergencies and more about a new program that we want to fund.”
Johnson said he would actually push for the county to have a smaller contingency budget, along with a smaller property tax levy. With a $1.9 billion budget, he said, “It’s not like we’re scraping by.”
Nearly 40 percent of Hennepin County’s budget is funded with the property taxes of homeowners in Minneapolis and west metro suburbs. The county levied $759.4 million in taxes this year, nearly $33 million more than last year.
The rest of the budget is funded by federal and state aid, fees and services and other revenue. The biggest expense for the county, as with most organizations, is employee salaries and benefits.
Hennepin County does have a separate reserve fund that could be tapped in an emergency, but Budget Director David Lawless said $7.3 million in the contingency fund is “not an unreasonable number.”
He understood that some board members were concerned about spending from the account, he said, adding: “For an organization with a $1.9 billion budget, it’s not a lot.”