Wright County Board prepares for budget with many new faces

by John Holler

There isn’t much after seven months that the new members of the Wright County Board of Commissioners haven’t see by this point. But one of the most critical jobs the county board tackles each year is the budget process — setting the budget and levy for the following year. It’s a process that will take up the entire month of August and it will be done with a lot of new faces. Not only will there be four new commissioners involved, for the first time in 30 years, County Coordinator Dick Norman won’t be overseeing the process.

Interim County Coordinator Lee Kelly will take over the role of guiding the commissioners through the budget meetings and said he’s ready for the daunting challenge.

“I’ve been involved in the process, but not at the level I will be this year,” Kelly said. “We had a lot of people who had worked on this process for a lot of years that won’t be there this year, from Dick Norman to the commissioners. It’s going to be a new process for a lot of us this time around.”

The one constant will be Board Chair Pat Sawatzke. A veteran of more than 20 years of county budgeting experience, he will be leaned on to provide background for the other commissioners about past policy and expects things to run similarly to what it has in the past, just with different people hearing department head requests.

“It’s certainly going to be different,” Sawatzke said. “The way we do the budget process will remain the same — department heads will come to the board with their budget proposals. What we’ll miss most without Dick Norman is that he would often provide us with a historical perspective on how we have handled similar budget questions in the past. I may be taking on more of that role this year, but all of the other commissioners and (auditor/treasurer) Bob Hiivala has budgeting experience. This will clearly be different from what the other commissioners have done, but there are some similarities.”

Commissioner Charlie Borrell said that the specifics of the county budget/levy process will be new to the four first-year commissioners, but added that all of them have budgeting experience from their previous positions in local government units.

“We’ll be looking to Commissioner Sawatzke for leadership, but we’re not entirely green to this process,” Borrell said. “We all have some experience in budgeting from our previous positions on town boards, school district or cities. But, this will be different because we are new to how the county does its process. We’ll get it done one way or another, but it will be new to us, just not completely new.”

The board will be asked to make some difficult decisions during the process as they weigh the merits of requests from department heads for personnel and equipment upgrades. Sawatzke believes the concern will be over assigning levels of importance the board deems adequate in the requests.

“The biggest part of the process is going to be prioritizing,” Sawatzke said. “The budget process is the most important thing the county commissioners do because we’re in charge of spending the money the citizens of Wright County provide us. We not only have to prioritize within a department budget, but prioritize requests from different departments. It’s not easy, because many of the requests are justifiable, but we simply can’t accommodate every request.”

The largest problem facing the commissioners is the schedule that has been proposed. Under the former county board, the process was streamlined over years of the commissioners working together. The new commissioners have many questions and department heads may see the 80 percent turnover of commissioners as a chance to plead a case for adding employees or equipment that hard largely fallen on deaf ears with the previous board, which had a de facto hiring freeze in place that has yet be lifted.

The schedule as it currently stands is as follows: Tuesday, Aug. 6 — Presentation of draft budget/capital improvement plan. Wednesday, Aug. 7 — Sheriff/Corrections (1:30 p.m.), Road and Bridge (2:30 p.m.); Soil and Water Conservation District (3:30 p.m.). Monday, Aug. 12 — Crow River Watershed District (9:30 a.m.), County Fair Board (9:45 a.m.), Auditor/Treasurer (10 a.m.), Non-departmental (10:20 a.m.), Administration/Building Care and Maintenance/County Board (11 a.m.); Human Services (2:30 p.m.). Tuesday, Aug. 13 — Information Technology (10:30 a.m.), Recorder (11:15 a.m.), Surveyor (11:30 a.m.), Parks (1 p.m.), Extension (2 p.m.). Thursday, Aug. 15 — Planning and Zoning (9 a.m.), Veterans Service/Civil Defense (9:20 a.m.), Assessor (9:40 a.m.), Court Services (10:15 a.m.), Attorney (10:30 a.m.), Court Administration (10:45 a.m.), Economic Development (11:15 a.m.), Initiative Foundation (11:30 a.m.), Historical Society (11:45 a.m.). Tuesday, Aug. 20 — Road and Bridge (if needed, 10:30 a.m.). Tuesday, Aug. 27 — Human Services (if needed, 10:30 a.m.). Tuesday, Sept. 3 — Final draft budget/levy review.

Given the combination of tight timelines and the amount of questions the new commissioners have typically raised at board meetings, it would appear as though the tight timelines within the schedule will be difficult to keep. However, Kelly said there are provisions built into the schedule to allow for longer times to hear budget requests.

“We have the ability to revise the schedule if needed,” Kelly said. “It’s tough to predict how long the department meetings will take. It has always been a pretty aggressive schedule and, with four new commissioners, I’m sure there will be a lot of questions being asked that may not have been asked in recent years because the commissioners had done this process so many times. We may need to make some changes to the schedule if need be, but it’s hard to predict how much longer the process will take this year.”

The unknown factor in the process will be whether department heads, who were forced to tighten their belts and get by without budget increases over the past few years since the nation’s economic recession hit in 2008, may see the new board as a chance to get approval on some of the requests that have been shelved over the past few years.

“I think it’s already happening,” Sawatzke said. “We had a presentation last month from (Information Technology Director) Bill Swing that included a request for five new employees. If we get a lot of requests like that, it could be a long and challenging process.”

While the commissioners are prepared to hunker down for a long month of analysis, debate and making the difficult decisions on what to keep and one to cut, they are looking forward to the challenge and are optimistic that, when all is said and done, they will come out with a budget and levy that the taxpayers will accept and understand.

“We have the month of August to get the draft budget and levy finalized, so there is time to get everything done even if we have to add some time or eliminate breaks that have been scheduled into the process,” Kelly said. “It’s going to make for some long days, but we’re ready for it.”

Contact John Holler at [email protected]