Washington County aid programs hit hard by unallotments

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 27, 2009 - 9:50 PM

County officials are worried about the effects the cuts will have on vulnerable residents.

Concern is mounting in Washington County as millions of dollars in state unallotments fall disproportionately on the poor, young, elderly and disabled.

Programs reduced or eliminated include child protection, chemical dependency, homeless shelters, utility emergencies, housing affordability and medical assistance for the impoverished and impaired.

"There's no secret there's a significant human toll, a human impact," said Dan Papin, director of Washington County community services. "We've taken a vulnerable population and we've made them more vulnerable now."

The human toll becomes more visible as Washington County commissioners compensate for losses in state aid and a decline in other revenue, such as fees paid at county offices. In February and March commissioners cut $3.1 million, about 2 percent of what the county had planned to spend this year. The 2010 budget will require further savings of $2.2 million that Gov. Tim Pawlenty unallotted from local government aid.

"Governments have always been concerned with taking care of the most vulnerable, those least able to care for themselves, and yet that's what we'll be cutting out. It's a travesty," said Myra Peterson, who chairs the county board.

Commissioners will start mapping next year's budget at a special meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday in the county's Government Center in Stillwater. Commissioner Bill Pulkrabek, an outspoken fiscal conservative, said it's always a challenge to look for human faces beyond dollars and programs.

"You need to be engaged as an elected official to have the human element out there," he said. "Some of these cuts have an impact on the personal level in a significant way."

One example is money spent to treat men who beat women and children. The $61,250 reduction in funding for the second half of this year, which commissioners approved last week, will double in 2010. The cuts mean that people ordered by courts to seek treatment will have to pay for it and many don't have the means, said Mark Kuppe, chief executive officer of Human Services, Inc., an agency that contracts with the county to treat domestic abusers.

It's not simply a matter of making abusers pay, he said, because many could go to jail for ignoring court orders.

"I think cutting programs for vulnerable people only compounds the problem in the community," Kuppe said. "The program's been operating for 25 years so we're pretty disappointed at this point."

When Pawlenty issued his list of unallotments -- health and human service programs consume five of the seven pages -- he said local governments should show more discipline in their budgets.

"Am I happy that we're losing the money? No. When you take a big hit like that nobody's happy about it," Pulkrabek said. "That said, I certainly understand what the governor's doing. If the state doesn't have the money, what do we do?"

Peterson objects to any inference that Washington County isn't taking care of business. "We have been historically far more prudent than the state has," said Peterson, who said the governor continues to shift costs to property taxpayers.

The most troubling unallotment lies with general assistance medical care, Papin said, a health insurance program for unmarried residents earning less than $677 a month. It accounted for nearly 1,000 residents last year. Most have impairments, disabilities and mental illness, he said, and they will continue to visit hospitals and clinics even without insurance.

"They're the poorest of the poor," Papin said. "They're the neediest we have in the county."

Cuts take a human toll in county offices, too, where employees deal with a growing county population that exceeds a quarter-million residents.

In March, commissioners voted to abolish the full-time equivalent of 21 county jobs to save about $1.4 million in salaries and benefits. Jobs that fell under the axe included three positions intended to bolster court security, two property appraisers, a public works senior planner, a child support officer, a probation officer, a corrections sergeant at the jail and a patrol deputy. All but two of the jobs were vacant.

Molly O'Rourke, the county's deputy administrator and budget director, said she doesn't anticipate further budget cuts this year. Reckoning with the 2010 budget will be a different matter. Peterson said that additional layoffs and increased caseloads could result.

"We've been prepared for this for months," said Pulkrabek, who opposes raising property taxes to make ends meet. "It'll be tough, but I'm not going to be one who's going to whine or cry about it."

Kevin Giles • 612-673-4432

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