Local officials bracing for shutdown
Published 9:16 am Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Less than two days away from a potential state government shutdown, Freeborn County officials said they have more questions than answers about what to expect and how they should proceed.
“We’re planning for a shutdown, but we don’t know exactly what that’s going to mean,” said Freeborn County Administrator John Kluever.
He said county departments that receive state funding are preparing for the worst.
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“The big concerns I have are funding, service delivery,” Kluever said. “There’s an expectation from Freeborn County residents of a level of service, whether the state is funding it or not. The question is will we be reimbursed and how much of our reserve will we be using to deliver those services?”
For the last several weeks, Kluever said he has been gathering information about potential effects of the shutdown, in anticipation of a special workshop with the Freeborn County Board of Commissioners on Friday, the day of the actual shutdown. During that workshop, the commissioners will review the effects on each county department and possibly set up a special meeting where they can take action.
“As of this point, no notices have been given out in terms of layoffs,” Kluever said. “Is there a possibility for that? There’s a possibility.”
The shutdown is slated to take place because an agreement has not been reached with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature about the state budget.
A few weeks ago, Freeborn County was notified it would receive an additional $312,000 from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development to aid people with debris cleanup from the June 17, 2010, tornadoes.
But if the state government is shut down, and this service is not deemed essential, the money will not be able to be disbursed from the state and ultimately to the residents.
“It’s a year out. We were waiting for that additional funding, and it may stop dead in its tracks,” Kluever said.
Another project that may also be hindered is the potential discussions with Union Pacific Railroad to acquire 12.6 miles of Union Pacific Railroad property and turn it into a multi-use trail from Hartland to Albert Lea.
Kluever said on Monday he received a letter stating Union Pacific was willing to negotiate with Freeborn County about acquiring the land and supports the county’s request for a 180-day negotiation period.
The only problem is the county hasn’t heard back — and may not be able to hear back in the case of a shutdown — about two state grants the county applied for. If awarded, the money was going to be used in negotiations for the land.
“We may not have an ability to sit down with UP knowing what kind of ability we have to pay for this,” he added.
Anything from driver’s licenses, food stamps and medical assistance could be affected if the state goes into shutdown on Friday.
Freeborn County Department of Human Services Director Brian Buhmann said the state sent out letters to all of the human services clients and providers, notifying them that their payments may be delayed or possibly not coming.
The clients, specifically, received notices that in some cases their benefits may be reduced or they would be ineligible. Medical assistance was the largest area Buhmann said could be affected.
He said the state has asked that people on medical assistance call the county or show up at their local emergency rooms, in the case that their typical providers turn them away.
Patti Hareid with Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea said this is contrary to the hospital’s philosophy.
“For us, it’s business as usual,” she said.
She wanted to remind people that emergency rooms are for emergencies; otherwise, they are encouraged to set up an appointment at Urgent Care.
A similar problem arises for people on food assistance programs.
Someone could come in with an application for food stamps, but there would be no way to process the paperwork.
Because of this concern, Albert Lea Salvation Army Capt. Jim Brickson said the local Salvation Army has already ordered 7,000 pounds of additional food and is looking into ordering an additional 10,000 pounds to have on hand. The organization is anticipating an influx of families coming in to use their services.
Brickson said also affected would be the meals the Salvation Army provides to children during the summer. Those are funded through the Department of Education, but the money is dispersed through the state.
Regarding the county’s mental health center, Buhmann said this facility has had to stop taking new referrals because three of its employees are state employees.
The mental health center has also been working on contingency plans to allow its clients to have medications refilled.
Buhmann said 120 families in the county are currently getting state assistance in paying for child care.
“Right now that hasn’t been deemed essential,” he said. “Do we choose to keep 120 people employed?”
If people don’t have child care options, they may not be able to work.
Buhmann also noted that there are 62 students funded through the state for the federal Head Start program.
“If this were to go into September, can they continue to service those 62 kids?” he asked.
Kluever said tracking down the effects of the shutdown is taking a lot of time and energy.
“I don’t know one department head or elected official who hasn’t worked on this or thought about it,” he said. “It’s taking a lot of staff time for something we know very little about and that may or may not happen.”
While the county is discussing whether to dip into reserves to continue some of the services, another concern is that the county may not get its aid payments from the state as well.
“Our crystal ball is so cloudy right now,” Buhmann said. “We’re planning for what we don’t know we’re planning for.”
The Mower County board voted unanimously Tuesday morning to put roughly 39 employees on involuntarily leave in the event of a state shutdown.
Workshop to discuss shutdown scheduled
The Freeborn County Board of Commissioners will have a workshop at 1 p.m. Friday — in the event of a state government shutdown — to discuss how the county will proceed in its departments that overlap with state responsibilities.
The meeting is slated to take place in the Freeborn Room at the Freeborn County Government Center.