Walz should look to local governments on how to make necessary cuts due to COVID

Gov. Tim Walz and his administration finally have to come to terms with the somber new fiscal reality for state government given the newly announced forecast of a $2.4 billion deficit staring him in the face. The governor and his lieutenants could do worse than look to local governments across the state for guidance on where and how to make necessary cuts in spending and personnel.

Many cities and counties began dealing with the budgetary tsunami headed their way several weeks ago. The city of St. Cloud, for example, swung into action within days of Walz’s March 13 emergency order,  according to the St. Cloud Times story of April  14.

“From the beginning, from the first executive order and looking at the implications it has for cities — and just COVID-19 in general — we knew there’d be an economic impact,” Kleis said Monday. “Cities have the same impact that anybody else would have in their home and business.”

That means purchases planned in the city’s budget or capital improvement plan — which include city vehicles, road reconstruction projects and infrastructure upgrades — are on hold.

The freeze also halted the interview process for open city jobs, although Kleis said the city’s police and fire departments are fully staffed.

Albert Lea also implemented cuts almost immediately, given that staff account for 72 percent of the city budget. The Albert Lea Tribune‘s report also noted a hiring freeze and other business-like measures went into effect.

The first phase, which started March 17, included layoffs of some part-time employees who were not able to work due to Gov. Tim Walz’s order or who could not complete their jobs because of facility closures.

The second phase, which is expected to run May 4 through May 31, will primarily affect the senior center and the library. He said the city will furlough five full-time library employees, who will be eligible to use floating holidays, vacation and sick time to cover their time while furloughed and remain eligible for insurance benefits.

Duluth has laid off dozens of workers and shuttered one of two municipal golf courses. Recent coverage in the Star Tribune draws comparisons to cuts leveled in the Great Recession of 2008.

The decision will save Duluth an estimated $234,000 per month, a city spokesperson said Wednesday. Before the pandemic, the city employed more than 900 people.

Staffers were notified this week that the layoffs will take effect May 8. Employees who will be laid off will have benefits until the end of May.

Among those affected were five parking service agents, four housing inspectors, four park maintenance workers and three janitors. The city had previously laid off 45 temporary employees and frozen hiring.

Nor are counties immune from coronavirus cutbacks, as the Rochester Post Bulletin points out.

Right now, said Wabasha County Administrator Brian Buhmann, the collection of property tax is still comparable to 2019. A bigger concern is the amount of state and federal money being redirected to COVID-19 emergency uses, because the state and federal governments only have some much money, and what’s being spent on COVID-19 is money that won’t go toward programs that are typically funded to help counties.

Even if the county were able to levy property taxes at the same level in 2021, there’s a concern County Program Aid or state highway funds will take a big hit. And, if so, how will the county make up the difference.

“It’s just a ripple effect, from federal to state, and the state to counties,” Buhmann said. “We’ll still be responsible for the delivery of those services locally.”

Let’s hope Gov. Walz takes his cue not only from local governments, but also families and small businesses from all over Minnesota, who are balancing their budgets by cutting spending and making do, rather than expecting someone else, namely taxpayers, to foot the bill.