As the Chisago County commissioners start the process of creating a budget for 2020, they looked at the county’s budget projections for the next four years as part of a busy meeting held Wednesday, July 3.

County Administrator Bruce Messelt presented three potential directions for the county’s future, terming them the “positive,” “neutral” and “negative” scenarios.

The positive scenario anticipated 5% growth in the community, with increases in both levy and non-levy revenues. In that case, the county’s total revenues and expenditures were basically equal over the four-year span.

“Because the community is expected to be growing, the tax rate would be going down,” Messelt explained.

The neutral case showed a slower economy, with the growth rate at 2.5%, and smaller increases in the other revenue sources.

“If there aren’t course corrections over the next five years, there’s a $29 million gap between revenues and expenditures,” Messelt said. “In this scenario, even in slower growth, basically the tax rate would go down a little bit.”

But he also cautioned that, if the levy percentage drops, the county would have to find cuts in expenditures.

The negative scenario included no growth and no levies. The result, as expected, is an increasingly larger deficit between revenues and expenses as the years march forward.

“While the tax rate stays flat, you’re talking about a $56 million gap over five years,” Messelt said. “On average it is $10 million per year, but actually it explodes in the last few years.”

In that particular case, the final two years would include a $34 million deficit, or greater than 60 percent of the five-year deficit total.

It was a sobering case study that highlighted, among other things, that the decisions the commissioners will make in a variety of areas in the near future will have long-term ramifications.

“We can all see that we have to be very careful with our spending,” Commissioner Ben Montzka said. “Even if we do a 3% increase [in the levy], we’ve got to really watch our spending. And if we do lower, we’ll have to be more careful – we may have to do some cuts.”

To underline the pressure facing the commissioners, Messelt referenced the report delivered earlier in the meeting by Health and Human Services Director Monica Long. In that report, Long stated that Child Protection Task Force established a work load standard that says each county worker should held responsible for no more than 10 cases.

Long estimates that currently each member of the county’s HHS staff is handling between 20-30 cases, and that a minimum of four full-time employees would need to be hired to adequately staff the current case load.

“You can see the pressures – we’re running a deficit in Health and Human Services, and Monica said we need more people,” Messelt said.

Long’s report also indicated that HHS currently has two vacancies, with a third opening imminent.

Messelt tenders resignation

Among other items the commissioners handled during a busy meeting – which included termination of its ARMER agreement with North Branch – was taking the first steps in finding a replacement for Messelt, who will be leaving his current post to become Sherburne County administrator.

Messelt tendered his resignation by giving his 60-day notice on Monday, July 1. The commissioners will be asked to formally accept his resignation at their July 17 meeting.

“I’m going to focus my efforts on completing priority projects such as budget preparations, the capital budget update, the grant agreement from the money that we have received from the [state] Legislature, and a couple of other significant projects,” Messelt said.

The commissioners are expected to appoint Assistant County Administrator Chase Burnham as the county’s interim administrator, while Human Resources Director Renee Kirchner will be appointed interim assistant.

Closed meeting

Before the meeting began, the commissioners held a roughly 40-minute closed-door meeting to discuss two legal matters. One involved a lawsuit threatened by the city of North Branch regarding the ARMER radio subscription agreement, and the other involves a lawsuit filed by former Chisago County law analyst Monica Jacobson against the county and now-retired Sheriff Rick Duncan.

Once the meeting was opened, the commissioners voted unanimously to proceed as directed by counsel during the closed session in regard to the Jacobson lawsuit.

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