by CHRIS ROGERS
After eyeing cuts to popular programs, the Winona County Board ultimately decided to against most of the budget cuts proposed this fall and agreed to provide new funding for a jail-population-reducing criminal justice program.
Earlier this fall, as the County Board grappled with a $1.7-million deficit in its draft 2019 budget, commissioner Steve Jacob proposed cutting funding for numerous outside agencies, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Winona County Historical Society, Project FINE, and SEMCAC, as well as cutting county programs that would require laying off staff, such as one of the county’s veteran service officers and the county water planner. At the same time, the County Board was faced with a decision about whether to fund the jail intake worker — who helps judges make informed decisions about which offenders need to be held in jail while their court case is pending and which ones may be released — with local property tax dollars because state grant funding is running out. After a series of heated meetings in which commissioners Marie Kovecsi, Jim Pomeroy, and Greg Olson advocated for funding programs and Jacob and commissioner Marcia Ward pushed their colleagues to commiserate with rural taxpayers, the board majority ultimately decided to maintain funding for most existing programs and provide funding for the jail intake worker.
Jacob argued for cutting off contributions to local nonprofits that have very healthy fund balances. Pointing to the $45,000 the county provides to Project FINE’s programs for helping immigrants and refugees, Jacob said, “Years ago, that might have really been necessary to provide that service to the community. Times have changed. They’ve grown to more than a $1-million fund balance.” The county itself has tried to be conscientious about not over-collecting taxes just to stash them away in reserves, Jacob pointed out. “If we treated these outside agencies the same as we’re treating ourselves, some of those fund balances are really high,” he said. Jacob and Ward advocated for cutting by 10 percent the county’s annual contributions to nonprofits with fund balances over $250,000. “There’s no doubt about it. Every one of these agencies does good, important work, but … I’m trying to defend the person that we’re simply just taking the money from,” Jacob said, referring to taxpayers.
Sure, but what about taking care of our neighbors and the common good? Kovecsi asked. She argued that some of the work done by nonprofits helps the county avoid future costs to its welfare programs and criminal justice system.
If Winona County had a dollar for every dollar it was supposed to save from preventative social services and criminal justice programs, it would be rich by now, Jacob countered.
“We’re taking money away from taxpayers,” Ward stated. “We’re taking money away from those people to make other people’s lives a little better. That’s not wrong, but how do you balance it?” she added.
Olson spoke against cutting that funding for the Southern Minnesota Initiative Fund, which uses money from local governments to leverage millions in private investments and funds local entrepreneurship and education programs. “That would be pennywise and pound foolish,” he stated.
One of the problems here is that every organization has different ways of accounting and that makes it hard to fairly compare fund balances across the board, Pomeroy stated. He and the rest of the board supported a proposal by county staff to develop a standardized system to compare the fund balances of nonprofits requesting county funding in future years.
The board majority’s decision to continue funding for local programs and provide new funding for some, such as the jail intake worker, means that the county’s budget deficit will not change significantly before the County Board has to set a final 2019 tax levy in December. The preliminary levy is set to increase by 5.5 percent, and the draft budget also calls for the county to balance its deficit with reserve spending in 2019.