Cities and counties cut jobs by thousands

  • Article by: KATIE HUMPHREY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 30, 2012 - 10:21 PM

As budget cuts force layoffs, the result is eroding public services.

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Fridley officer Barry Pankonin was busy last week with traffic stops. The city had to lay off two cops because of a tight budget.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Fridley used to have two police officers focused on crime prevention and problem neighborhoods. Mankato city workers used to regularly trim boulevard trees. Many St. Paul libraries used to be open until 9 p.m.

Not anymore.

Cities across the state have made thousands of changes to everyday routines -- some obvious to residents, some not -- as tight budgets have forced them to shed staff.

"It's changing the quality of services," said Tim Flaherty, executive director of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. "A lot of them don't like to talk about it because they don't have a choice."

There are nearly 9,000 fewer workers in city and county governments than there were a decade ago, according to the latest statistics from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Nearly 3,500 of those jobs have disappeared since the economic recession began in 2008. Those numbers don't include teachers or other employees of local school districts; those jobs have dropped by about 5,000 over the decade.

As in the private sector, jobs have been lost to attrition, early retirement incentives and layoffs. While nearly every local government trimmed payrolls, the hardest hit were those with budgets tightly tied to the state. For example, steep cuts to local government aid (LGA), part of the state's solution to its own budget woes, reverberated through Minneapolis, St. Paul and many of the outstate cities that banked on that money each year.

Just look at Mankato

The southern Minnesota city's allotment of LGA dropped from a high of $9.8 million to $6.4 million. Couple that with the public's lack of appetite for property tax hikes when property values were plummeting, and the city opted to cut jobs.

Twenty-four positions, about 10 percent of the city workforce, have been eliminated in the past four to five years, said Pat Hentges, Mankato's city manager.

The Police Department, down three officers, doesn't respond to minor daytime fender-benders anymore. Boulevard trees are only trimmed when they become hazards. It takes longer to clear the streets after a snowfall because there aren't as many people to drive plows.

People have started to complain.

"We've gotten along, but we haven't had a lot of citizen satisfaction regarding those cuts," Hentges said. "Some of these services, maybe they're not critical to core services, emergencies, but they're critical to livability and prosperity of your community. That's what we've cut, the quality of life."

And no one knows when the budget pressure will ease.

A survey by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence found that more than 25 percent of municipal governments nationwide plan to lay off workers this year. More than half of the cities surveyed nationwide also reported that they already had reduced staff since 2009.

In St. Paul, the libraries have cut staff by more than 12 percent and reduced open hours by more than 10 percent since 2009.

"It's unfortunate," said Lee Thompson, a Roseville resident who stopped by the Rondo Community Outreach Library with her daughter Margaret-Ann, 12, recently. "It's changed a lot since I came to the state of Minnesota [in 2007]."

At Rondo and some other St. Paul libraries, patrons can now check in books on their own, slipping them under a scanner and onto a conveyer belt to save some time for the staff.

"It does help," said Cassandra Carter, who supervises a staff of 11 -- two full time, nine part time -- on the circulation side of the library. She had 15 employees when the library opened in 2006. "It frees us up to do other things that need to be done."

In many cases, when a city employee leaves, someone else just picks up the work.

In other instances, the recession itself offered a solution. In such suburbs as Savage that needed staff for the building boom, the phones stopped ringing when the housing bubble burst.

"We didn't have as many calls, therefore we needed less people," said Barry Stock, city administrator. The city cut a handful of employees whose work revolved around building inspections, engineering and planning.

Like the St. Paul libraries, many look to technology for a little help, investing in software and equipment that removes redundancies in record keeping, implementing self-serve online applications for permits and loading up websites with information people may have previously called City Hall to learn.

And a few places have cautiously started filling long-vacant jobs.

Dakota County beefed up its ranks in social services after seeing increased applications for help from the public during the recession. Brooklyn Park decided to open a new youth center that was a priority for the City Council, hiring new staff a couple of years after tightening the budget with early retirements and layoffs.

Rebuilding is slow process

As Fridley City Manager Bill Burns mulls the 2013 city budget, he's still trying to figure out what to do with this year's "permanent vacancies." Among them: two police officers, a fire marshal, a finance worker, an administrative assistant at the city garage and a recycling coordinator.

"We are at the point right now where it's very difficult to do anything else, to make any other adjustments anywhere without actually cutting services," Burns said.

Katie Humphrey • 952-746-3286

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