Though it will be months before Hennepin County knows exactly what its state aid will be for 2010-11, officials said Thursday that one thing is clear: The funding picture is bad and will only get worse.

State funding to Minnesota's most populous county will likely drop by more than $100 million during the biennium, county commissioners were told in a briefing Thursday. The county's 2009 budget is about $1.7 billion.

As board members unhappily eyed estimates of state cuts suggested in Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget, County Administrator Richard Johnson warned them that the picture is expected to get gloomier when a new economic forecast comes out at the end of this month.

"It's going to get worse," he said. "Today, this is the best."

County officials have already restricted hiring, limited travel and said they will ask department heads to begin thinking about cuts. The county also has the right to sever contracts with its many vendors on 30 days' notice -- a right commissioners stressed when they approved the 2009 budget in December.

Officials said that though they lacked specifics -- Pawlenty's budget could change considerably as legislators weigh in -- they wanted commissioners to know the general lay of the land so they can start thinking about how to save money.

The single biggest loss in state funds that go to the county would be a $29.3 million reduction in county program aid. That aid, which is used as general property tax relief and is distributed throughout the county budget, would be cut roughly in half over the biennium.

Dave Lawless, county finance director, said after the meeting he expects that fund to take a big hit no matter what legislators do. Given the budget problems at the state level, he said, "It is unrealistic to expect that [cut] to go down."

Health services also take cuts in the governor's budget. Commissioner Mike Opat mourned the impact that could be felt at NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center in north Minneapolis, which offers medical, dental and social services to a community that hasn't always had easy access to health care.

Opat said the county had remodeled NorthPoint's building and recruited dentists to work there. Dental care is one of the areas that would be cut for some adults covered by Minnesota Care, the state insurance program for people who cannot find affordable health insurance.

"It's a budget that falls on the folks who have no other place to go," Opat said.

Other commissioners pointed out that with cuts in health care funding, even more people will delay routine health care until illnesses reach a crisis stage and they end up in the emergency room of Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC).

Commissioner Gail Dorfman estimated that one-third of the approximately 85,000 adults statewide who would lose health care under the governor's proposals could end up seeking care at HCMC, which is a trauma center and the second-largest trainer of medical residents in the state. It also serves more indigent patients than any center in the state.

Even before factoring in the unknown costs of caring for newly uninsured people, the hospital would lose an estimated $25 million in state funding during calendar year 2010 and perhaps as much as $40 million over the biennium. Those figures include matching federal dollars that would disappear because of the state cuts.

"This will be a real test of our agility," said Lynn Abrahamsen, the center's chief executive officer.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380