Hennepin County should require all its employees to take three days off without pay this year to help the county deal with budget cuts, the county administrator told commissioners on Thursday.

The idea got a lukewarm reaction from the three board members who were present for the briefing, even though Administrator Richard Johnson said that if all the county's approximately 8,000 workers took the days off it would save the county $4.5 million to $5 million. He is looking for at least $20 million in savings this year to deal with anticipated state funding cuts and to recoup a cut in state aid that came days before the end of 2008.

"I think $20 million is kind of a minimum [in savings]," Johnson told the board, adding that "2010 cuts could be worse."

In fact, Johnson said, the budget picture is dire enough that unpaid furloughs will not prevent layoffs. They may only delay them and help with the county's immediate budget challenge, he said.

The county's top managers have already committed to take three-day furloughs and the accompanying pay loss this year, which will save about $100,000. But commissioners seemed hesitant to ask all county workers to make a similar sacrifice.

Gail Dorfman wondered about fairness, saying the impact could be dramatically different depending on employees' jobs, the size of their families and whether there were other wage earners in the house.

"It could be voluntary instead," she said. "Isn't that a more fair way?"

Johnson said many employees have volunteered to take time off without pay, but he questioned the uncertain result of voluntary furloughs as well as the fairness of balancing cost-cutting only on the backs of volunteers. One equity issue that has already come up, he said, is non-organized employees asking what unions are doing, and vice versa.

A union representative sitting in the audience said the union would "prefer it not happen," but he said officials would discuss it with their locals.

Commissioners asked Johnson to come back with furlough proposals and alternatives that could be considered at a full meeting later this month or in May.

Minnesota's largest and richest county has a 2009 budget of $1.7 billion. Johnson said he expects state funding to be cut $10 million to $16 million this year, with deeper cuts coming next year. He also wants to add $10 million to the county's reserves, which were depleted by $10 million late last year when the governor pulled back that much state funding to deal with the state's budget deficit.

Board Chairman Mike Opat asked if it was necessary to restore the $10 million to the county's general fund reserves. Johnson said he thought it wise "when we're dealing with the unknown."

That fund, which Johnson said has a balance of roughly $148 million now, is used to maintain cash flow between property tax payments, which come in May and October. Johnson said later that he considers boosting the reserve fund especially important this year, when state funding could be paralyzed if the governor and Legislature wind up in a stalemate over the state budget.

County budget savings already in the works for this year include holding open and eliminating vacant positions and reducing expenditures on office supplies, consulting contracts, travel and equipment. Those changes, which include a cut of nearly 74 full-time positions, are expected to save $15.2 million.

The county cut more than 200 positions late last year, most through attrition, and also has a partial hiring freeze.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380