In Dakota County, the lines of people needing help with food, housing or medical care keep getting longer. And with Minnesota poised to lose up to 55,000 more jobs in the coming year and an economy that's showing no signs of a quick recovery, officials are deeply worried.

On Dec. 4, when Minnesota's budget forecast is due, officials fear that news of a large deficit will only worsen what's already a difficult situation. After harsh state budget cuts to cities and counties in 2003-04, there are no reserves left to help cushion those state cuts, as there were a few years ago.

"I am very, very worried about whether the state financial responsibility for delivering 'safety net' services will be maintained in a way that will not drive up county property taxes," said Brandt Richardson, Dakota County administrator.

"There is already a problem with the way these services are funded even in good times. Now, with a state budget crisis that I expect will be nothing short of astonishing, the county is doubly exposed. Not only could we lose the general aid [from the state] but we could also lose a significant amount of funding for human services."

One indicator of the growing need: The county in September hit a record high, 7,700, for the number of families seeking nutritional assistance for children under the Women, Infants & Children (WIC) program.

Dakota County WIC is the third-largest of the programs in Minnesota, said Marilyn Loving, Community Services deputy director. By the end of this year, she said, more than 15,000 families will make 84,000 client visits.

The WIC average monthly caseload increased by 58 percent between 2002 and 2007, while full-time employee positions to process those claims increased just 39 percent, she said. Employees continue to make processes improvements, such as adjusting how and when appointments are scheduled, to keep up with the increased requests for WIC services, Loving said.

County employees are being strained by a rising need to process claims for other kinds of public assistance, too, said Ruth Krueger, director of the county's employment and economic assistance. That's so even though the federal government provides half of the money for processing the claims.

In the 2009 budget, the County Board is recommending adding two positions to help with that. And even with new automating technology, which will replace the work done by eight full-time people, more help is needed, Krueger said. Officials figure that the county staff will be short by six positions to keep up with a projected maximum caseload, she said.

"We are in a tough position because as we have more people arriving at our door who want to get qualified for public help through the county, we've got a real hard choice to make in terms of do we want to try to add staff at the county to deal with helping people get eligible for benefits," said Matt Smith, county financial services director.

Richardson points to the limits on staff growth in eligibility screening for income and medical assistance programs, where the caseload is increasing but small staffing increases aren't keeping up, even though the county is automating some services to help with processing.

"In my last two budget recommendations we have had a significant increase in financial workers who determine eligibility for income and medical assistance, due to the growing caseloads," Richardson said.

"Income and medical assistance screening should be a statewide service not related to the ability to levy the local property tax -- that is, it should be funded by state income taxes, not local property taxes," he said. "People move from county to county, and when they get back on their feet the state will collect the higher taxes on the income they earn."

Overall, Dakota County officials are planning a 3.1 percent increase to nearly $143 million in human services funding for 2009, Smith said. That encompasses community services and their administration, social services, employment and economic assistance, public health, veterans' services, community corrections, and extension programs, he said.

Richardson said Minnesota is one of only about nine states that rely on counties, and their property taxes, to carry out statewide human services.

"It is exceedingly difficult to ask county property-tax payers with falling home values and very challenging economic times themselves to pay more in property taxes to help pay for services to fund the 'safety net,'" Richardson said.

That's why county officials are trying to "hold the line" on property taxes, he added.

Nancy Schouweiler, chairwoman of the County Board, said people who are losing their homes are doubling up with other families -- which often is correlated with increased domestic abuse, which in turn jacks up the cost of courts and corrections. And already, the county is strained by having to provide money to house short-term offenders for the state.

The county is trying to work with other counties on ways to continue to meet the public's needs, Schouweiler said.

"It's a juggling game, pretty much, with very limited resources," she said. "People are going to have to accept that services are not going to be as quantitative or qualitative in the future."

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017