Will Anoka County's eye-popping 7.4 percent tax levy reduction also mean a drastic reduction in services?

That was Commissioner Dan Erhart's fear last week when he was the lone board member to vote against the county's proposed 2012 budget. But on Friday, board Chairwoman Rhonda Sivarajah reiterated that the reductions are designed to make the slightest impact possible.

"We're holding certain positions open, but we're not going to let caseloads go through the roof if people need services," she said. "We're not going to be slashing and burning areas of immediate need or that are mandated."

The county's proposed net levy for 2012 is $98.5 million, or $8.15 million less than this year's, and the first decrease in 30 years. The overall proposed budget is $275.6 million.

The county's budget strategy began in earnest in April as managers began assessing vacant jobs that might remain open and others that could be streamlined. There are 62 fewer county positions in 2011 than in 2010 and another 20 are projected to go unfunded next year.

During previous financial crises, county managers almost went out of their way "to show the pain," Sivarajah said. This time, the county tried to make reductions early, to possibly avoid making others later, Sivarajah said.

"We're not cold, cruel and heartless," she said. "We understand what our mission is. We want to minimize the impact of these cuts. The drop in levy is not coming at the expense of our ability to serve the taxpayer."

'Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut ...'

Commissioner Jim Kordiak called the budget "very difficult" but voted for it nonetheless. Erhart did not. And even after Commissioner Matt Look publicly criticized him, Erhart refused to back down.

"Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut ... " Erhart said, expressing his concern about the quality of services the county will provide.

"I don't believe this budget does that adequately," he said. "I don't believe this budget serves Anoka County very well."

Anoka County, which has long had a reputation for being innovative, will continue to position itself for the future "by investing thoughtfully and strategically to maximize the value of every taxpayer dollar, lowering our debt burden and maintaining healthy reserves for the long run," Sivarajah said.

The County Board was looking to minimize a nearly $6.9 million loss from the elimination of the state's market value homestead credit for homeowners and another $1.5 million in state aid. The board made several cuts totaling $8.15 million to arrive at the 2012 tax levy.

Conservatives like Ramsey Mayor Bob Ramsey say the county has been overtaxed for far too long and the county board made a bold, historic move.

"You can't just keep taxing the heck out of people for the sake of building a surplus," Ramsey said.

"The county is doing what the city of Ramsey did three years ago. We realized citizens were overtaxed for years and cut the city's tax levy -- not because we said we wanted to do it, but because it was necessary."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419