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County looks at layoffs, hiring freeze in response to budget

A hiring freeze, layoffs, cuts in services and reduced support to agencies are some of the expected fallout at the county level from proposed state budget cuts.

A hiring freeze, layoffs, cuts in services and reduced support to agencies are some of the expected fallout at the county level from proposed state budget cuts.

"There is no way that we're going to get out of this without layoffs," warned St. Louis County Administrator David Twa at a Monday workshop.

He said there is a strong likelihood that 85 percent of the governor's proposal will come through.

"This is not just a two-year problem," said Twa. "These cuts are likely to be permanent."

Under Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposed budget, the county will take an estimated $14 million hit in 2003 and 2004. That includes money lost from cuts in general state aid, program specific aid and cost shifting.

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And it could get worst. Another wave of red ink rolled in with Thursday's financial forecast that could have the state looking at even deeper cuts.

"The November forecast was optimistic," said county legislative analyst John Ongaro. "... The economy is not growing like they projected."

The county has come up with a list of steps to cope with reduced funding. Measures include a hiring freeze that will save about $3.7 million. The county will also reduce equipment purchases, cut aid to agencies -- such as Meals on Wheels and Range Women's Advocates -- by 25 percent and slash the general fund by $1.5 million.

Even then, Twa said, they will be about $3.5 million short. Despite the shortfall, the county may also face property levy limits in 2004 depending on what the Legislature does.

Discussion was not specific on job cuts, but Twa pointed out that the county will save about $50,000 with every position eliminated. That's based on an average annual county wage of $39,000 plus $9,000 in benefits.

County benefits include health insurance coverage with no deductible and low co-pays that could be an early target. But Twa warned that if the county commissioners want to pursue that, they have to be ready for a strike.

He said that with a layoff, they save about half the cost the first year. The administration is also studying an early retirement program that could affect about 140 workers.

County projections further assume there will be no wage increases in 2004-05 for its nearly 2,500 workers.

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"The problem is going to hit us very hard and very quickly," Twa said. "Everything we do has a constituency; we cannot balance this budget other than with severe cuts."

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