When residents walked into Burnsville’s community development office, a receptionist used to be waiting to help with questions about permits or licenses. That was before the recession.
Now, people must make an appointment or apply for permits online. The administrative job was one of 20 positions the city eliminated in 2009 — and there are no plans to add them back.
Six years after the recession, growing tax bases and increased tax levies are bringing in money, but cities and counties that cut jobs have been reluctant to fill them. Many local officials said they are reducing debt and completing delayed projects — not hiring new staff.
Across the state, remaining government workers are stretched thin, and residents are seeing delays in many services.
“It’s stressful for their staffs,” said Keith Carlson, director of the Minnesota Inter-County Association, “but they’ve gotten used to doing more with less.”
Local government employment in Minnesota has increased about 1 percent since hitting a low point in 2011, said Timothy O’Neill, a regional analyst with the state Department of Employment and Economic Development. Meanwhile, private sector jobs have grown by more than 5 percent, he said.
Local government employment dropped across the metro area during the recession. While the recovery in each city and county looks different, most have started to bounce back — with caution.
“There are a lot of things that would be really nice to have, but we’re not chasing those trends and those shiny objects,” said Rhonda Sivarajah, Anoka County Board chairwoman. “We’re focused on some of the bread-and-butter issues.”
When jobs are added, it’s often in response to state or federal mandates. Dakota County, for example, added 13 state grant-funded child protection positions this year and plans to hire 14 people in 2016 to work with MNsure, Minnesota’s health insurance exchange, and MnChoices, an assessment program for those who need public services. The state is helping to pay for those jobs.
“We don’t go out and add positions typically unless there’s funding attached to it,” Sivarajah said.
Tax levies rising, not for jobs
Property tax levies in towns, cities and counties increased more than 3 percent last year and are projected to increase more than 4 percent in 2016, according to the Minnesota Department of Revenue.
The most common reason for levy increases is infrastructure-related expenses, said Lena Gould, a policy analyst with the Minnesota League of Cities. Cities are spending more on projects like parks maintenance in Andover and road reconstruction in West St. Paul.
In a review of news reports from across the state, Gould said she found just eight of the state’s 853 cities are considering increasing their levies next year to fund new positions, raise salaries or add services for their staff.
Staying conservative on taxes is a priority with the Olmsted County Board in southeastern Minnesota, said Chief Financial Officer Bob Bendzick, because development — which bolsters the tax base — is just starting to come back in the area.
“People kind of know if there’s no money, there’s no point in asking” for more employees, he said.
Bendzick expects hiring will increase as the community grows. But in Olmsted County and elsewhere, certain positions will not return. They have been replaced by automated systems.
Understaffing causes delays
Prior Lake laid off two building inspectors and the city’s economic development director in 2009. The city earmarked funds in its 2016 budget to add a police officer and a maintenance employee — pending council approval — but will still have an understaffed building department at a time when building permits are expected to spike.
“Most often what happens is it results in a delay that you don’t normally see,” said City Administrator Frank Boyles.
In Scott County, just a few government jobs were cut. But as more residents have experienced their own financial troubles, staff members have been stretched thin trying to meet social service demands, said Employee Relations Director Lori Huss.
Instead of adding more jobs, county staffers have been asked to come up with ways to do more with less, Huss said.
“When you do get pressured, you learn how to do things in a different way,” Prior Lake’s Boyles said. “I was going to say ‘better,’ but that’s not always the case.”
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