County Government Spending…The Whole Story
BY KURT MARTIN
Crow Wing County’s Administrator, Timothy Houle, referenced his responsive guest column of June 17 as “…the rest of the story.” While he may have plagiarized Paul Harvey’s famous byline, his column was certainly not the whole story.
Houle makes note of two recent awards, one by the National Association of Counties and the other by the Association of Minnesota Counties. I’ve always been amazed by the number of self-aggrandizing awards government bestows upon itself and how they are utilized, as Houle has done so in his column, to rationalize their actions. Houle’s reference to both of these associations speaks to just one spending excess, the amount of tax dollars paid to these associations. In 2010, Crow Wing County disbursed nearly $50,000 to such associations for memberships and event registrations. As excessive as that is, it does not include the travel, lodging, meals, per diem, and other expenses associated with the attendance and/or participation of county personnel in these associations. In my business, the cost of employee attendance at a day conference is near $1,000 in travel expenses and the loss of business revenues necessary to pay the overhead associated with that position. No doubt, the county has similar, if not greater personnel expenses incurred when staff or elected officials participate in association functions.
Next, Houle highlights the 2.87 percent reduction in the 2012 levy. Houle further exclaims this is the largest levy reduction in the history of Crow Wing County. I would certainly agree this would be a notable achievement, if it not had come on the heels of the 81 percent increase in the levy from 2004 to 2010. In fact, it does not even undo the levy increase of 3 percent in 2008, the 2.98 percent increase in 2009, or the 2.95 percent increase in 2010 all within the tenure of our current county board.
Houle claims the county’s levy grew “only” 2.08 percent from 2008 to 2012. According to documents prepared by the auditor’s office, it actually grew 5.18 percent. Actual expenditures increased by 7.2 percent.
In contrast, mean family incomes declined by 11.1 percent from 2007 to 2010, according to the Federal Reserve’s recent report. This report included government employment categories, which have incomes that typically increased or at least remained constant. Adjusting for government employees and the county’s abnormally high unemployment rate, it would place the income decline for the county’s private sector at near 40 percent. This income decline coupled with the county’s 20 percent U6 unemployment rate establishes, at a minimum; county budgets from 2008 forward have been an irresponsible burden and hardship upon Crow Wing County families. They certainly would not be, as characterized by Houle, an “…extraordinary achievement…and worthy of national…awards.”
Houle acknowledges the 2012 budget did increase 4.4 percent, but discounts that increase as being paid from federal tax dollars rather than local tax dollars. This is exactly the issue with revenue sharing. When the funds originate from another tax source; they are often regarded as being “free” money and, in turn, frequently expended in a frivolous and wasteful manner. Whether the money comes from the left pocket or the right pocket, it still comes from our pockets.
Houle next makes note that Crow Wing County is in the bottom 10 of the 87 Minnesota counties as it relates to property tax rates. This only adds emphasis to one of the points of the prior guest column, that government spending is as much a state/local government spending issue as federal. Especially in the light of the spending excesses here, in Crow Wing County, alone.
Houle follows that Crow Wing County commissioners and senior managers voluntarily agreed to freeze their pay in 2009, 2010 and 2011. What about 2012? I believe I would be speaking for the vast majority of us still fortunate to have a livelihood in the private sector, with certainty for those that are unemployed, and likely for those who have or are losing their home through foreclosure or eviction, that we all would be absolutely ecstatic to have our earning froze at 2008 levels.
In his final point, Houle makes note that Crow Wing County has reduced the number of full-time employees from its peak in 2007. I would, again, agree this would be a notable achievement — if it actually produced any cost savings. To the contrary, while the number of full-time employees decreased by 9 percent (2010), even with 39 fewer full-time employees and five less part-time employees, total salary expenditures still increased by 6.5 percent and benefits by 10.4 percent. Honestly, is this reasonable? This would put a private sector company out of business.
In his closing paragraphs, Houle outrageously boasts of “…the dramatic steps...to cut spending” and “…the bold actions and unprecedented progress Crow Wing County has achieved in reducing government spending.” To that I query: What cuts in spending? What reductions? The only year in the current county board’s tenure there was a spending reduction was 2011. That 0.52 percent reduction was erased eight Houles over again with the 2012 increase.
As Houle eluded to, these are political issues and, in turn, county board policy issues. Houle is not an elected official, but rather serves as the clerk to the county board and is accountable to the board. As such, Houle’s letters to the editor and guest columns are speaking to policy set by the board. In short, Houle is speaking or writing on behalf of the county board. I would speculate the county board prefers to have Houle speak to issues of policy that maybe controversial, as they can distance themselves from the political fallout. However, is that really appropriate? In my opinion, I believe the county board or a member thereof, particularly those up for re-election, should be speaking to these issues directly. Moreover, Houle is the highest paid employee in the county, drawing a six-figure salary plus benefits. He is an awfully expensive letter writer and his talents could be better utilized administering county business rather than engaging in the political debate of policy. The county board sets policy, not the county administrator. Houle’s guest column is just another example of the poor expenditure of county funds.
Kurt Martin is a candidate for Crow Wing County Board.