Board tackles county budget

FAIRMONT – Martin County commissioners have some tough budgeting choices in front of them.

The board is looking at a bare minimum of $900,000 in proposed cuts for 2014, in an attempt to keep the county’s levy increase within the state-imposed cap of 5.3 percent. The cuts would impact departments across the board.

Even with those cuts, the county would still need to increase its levy by 11 percent to cover its expenses, which is why commissioners will likely dip into reserve funds for a third year in a row.

For 2012 and 2013 combined, $800,000-plus in reserve funds helped the county pay its bills. For 2014, the board is considering using $600,000, according to County Coordinator Scott Higgins.

“Reserves are such that we’re in pretty good shape from a credit-rating standpoint,” he said.

Commissioners have until Sept. 16 to certify a preliminary levy, after which they can decrease but not increase how much county taxpayers will pay out. The board will again discuss the budget at its Sept. 3 meeting.

Aware of the county’s financial situation, the sheriff’s department came to the board Tuesday with a difficult request: adding an emergency management director and one to two dispatchers.

“It’s hard to ask for more,” said Chief Deputy Corey Klanderud.

Currently, the title of emergency management director is held by Sheriff Jeff Markquart, with much of the legwork done by dispatch staff, who are already stretched thin.

“I’m proud of our people for being able to do what they’ve done, but I don’t think we can continue to task them like we have been,” said Klanderud, who is worried about losing dispatchers due to burnout.

Each year, the responsibilities of the mandated emergency management role are increasing, and the sheriff’s department is already over on overtime in an attempt to cover all the requirements, and funds for part-time help are getting low.

Heightening the issue is pressure from above. The state wants better guarantees that grant money designated to pay for emergency management personnel is being used solely for emergency management.

“I’ve been told by the state, if we don’t meet the requirements, we won’t be eligible for other grants,” Klanderud said.

This could have a negative impact on communities throughout Martin County, since their emergency management plans are tied in with the county’s plans, according to Markquart.

The list of grants tied to compliance ranges from state fire assistance, to disaster relief loans, homeland security funds and more.

“When I started this job a few years ago, I didn’t see this as a high priority. Now, I see no other way without finding someone. I haven’t been able to find another way to address it,” Klanderud said.

The entry-level position could include some other duties. The budget request to pay for the additional employee is $51,000, which would include all benefits.

Commissioners did not take action on the request.