County Board debates budget cuts



Tensions ran high yesterday as the Winona County Board discussed budget cuts that would require laying off staff. Commissioner Steve Jacob accused Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman of bullying, and Sonneman accused Jacob of the same. County Board Chair Marcia Ward invited sheriff Ron Ganrude to sue the County Board, if he really wanted to, over its decision to give him less courthouse security funding than he asked for, and Ganrude said he is considering it. Ultimately, most of the proposed cuts were shot down by a narrow majority of the board, and a few were slated for further research and consideration.

Jacob proposed the cuts last month as the County Board was facing a $1.7-million deficit in its 2019 budget. He acknowledged that other board members would likely find the cuts unpalatable, but said he wanted to do whatever possible to reduce tax hikes on citizens. Jacob’s colleagues went along with the idea, with commissioner Greg Olson saying that the proposed cuts should be discussed and commissioners Marie Kovecsi and Jim Pomeroy pledging to seriously consider budget reductions.

The proposals included eliminating the county’s restorative justice program, which offers an alternative to prosecuting low-level juvenile delinquents; cutting the county’s University of Minnesota Extension program, including the 4-H coordinator; eliminating the director of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council; laying off the water planner, who works on projects such as the Lake Winona water quality study (see story on page 1a); and cutting funding for the Winona County Historical Society, the Winona County Fair, local food shelves, SEMCAC, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and a host of other organizations and programs.

Jacob and Ward argued in favor of several of those cuts, while Kovecsi, Olson, and Pomeroy quashed further consideration of most of the cuts and agreed to include most of the programs in the 2019 budget.

Regarding juvenile justice, county staff reported that if the restorative justice program were cut, many of the cases it handles would turn into more serious truancy and child welfare cases and drive up the already high workload of county social workers. Kovecsi argued that straightening out youth while they are young will reduce adult crime down the road. Jacob said he was frustrated that many local criminal justice reform programs claim to save the county money but have not shown clear proof that they do. “If you can promise me that supporting the restorative justice program, that it is going to result in millions of dollars less spent on the jail facility, I might be able to consider it,” Jacob stated. “I need more proof,” he added.

State studies have shown that these restorative justice programs, albeit not the Winona County Restorative Justice program specifically, are cost effective, Kovecsi responded, pointing to the Minnesota Department of Management and Budget’s Results First reports. Olson and Pomeroy joined her in a straw vote to keep restorative justice in the 2019 budget.

Eliminating the water planner position was projected to save the county $15,000-$28,000 a year. The County Board should be happy that the county has a local water planner and the net cost to the county is just $15,000, Pomeroy stated. Jacob said that $15,000 might sound like a pittance to Pomeroy, but to him, that was $15,000 the county could save. This disagreement comes to down to different ideas about how tightly the county should limit its total budget, Ward stated. “I’m an advocate of not increasing the [tax] levy,” she said. “Other board members don’t seem to have a problem with increasing the levy.” She added, “We’re in deficit spending to keep all this going. It’s unaffordable for public dollars. We’re going down a road of un-affordability for property tax payers.”

Olson and Pomeroy took issue with Ward’s statement. “I think we all care about [raising taxes],” Pomeroy said. Olson argued, “I’ve put a lot of thought into this, and for you to say zero [tax increase] every year might sound good on your campaign, but it’s unrealistic when we have increasing costs.”

Olson, Pomeroy, and Kovecsi agreed to keep the water planner position. They also shot down Jacob and Ward’s proposal to cut the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s director. However, the board majority did agree to look more into other potential cuts, including whether the county should scale back its contributions to outside agencies and nonprofits that have a lot of cash in the bank — those with reserve fund balances over $250,000 — and whether the county needs to keep a full-time position dedicated to planning for public health emergencies.

In a long-running debate over whether the County Board would give Ganrude more money to hire licensed deputies to help guard the courthouse, Olson proposed giving Ganrude an extra $30,000 — for a total of $115,000 — and letting him decide how to spend it: on private security contractors or licensed deputies. Ganrude had asked for an extra $170,000 to hire three full-time deputies who would replace private guards at the courthouse because, according to multiple legal opinions, state law does not allow private guards to be armed at the courthouse. Ward and Jacob agreed to Olson’s offer, while Kovecsi unsuccessfully pushed for the County Board to meet Ganrude in the middle. “Off the top of my head, I see no way that additional $30,000 will provide adequate security,” Ganrude said.

“Well, I hate to say it, but [Ganrude] can sue us if he feels we’re not giving him the resources, and then we can go down that path,” Ward said. According to Sonneman, the sheriff could sue the County Board and ask a district court judge to order the County Board to provide more funding for courthouse security. Asked in an interview if he was considering that option, Ganrude said, “I’m considering everything.”

The County Board plans to continue its budget discussion later this month. Keep reading the Winona Post for more information.


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