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Hubbard County enacts hiring freeze

PARK RAPIDS - The county's financial position is so dismal, some departments may want to take a paper route or a night job waiting tables just to bring in more money.

Hard times are here.

The county assessor learned that Wednesday. Bob Hansen's appearance before the regular meeting of the Hubbard County Board of Commissioners came at the worst possible time.

Two hours after the board enacted a hiring freeze, Hansen was before it asking for help.

It's tax season and a busy time of year in his department. He has an employee retiring next month. The board's response: Beg her to stay on. You're not getting a replacement.

Hansen publicly worried about getting his workload accomplished by statutory deadlines. Additionally, his department is involved in a major software switch to a new system that records property, tax assessments, billings and collections.

Until the Manatron program is up and running at a high confidence level, likely in June, personnel will need to post duplicate entries in both sets of software.

"You didn't get the memo did you?" asked board chair Lyle Robinson. "We're simply not going to replace that person. You can contract it out. You will have to come up with ideas on getting the work done... You can rent hours from another department but we're going to stick to it. Being a department manager in Hubbard County is going to be a pain."

"If tax statements don't get out, don't come to me," Hansen responded. "If the Manatron conversion doesn't get done, don't come to me."

Commissioners were not sympathetic, even when Hansen said he also has a 60 percent position budgeted but open.

"There might be things put on hold that are not important," commissioner Cal Johannsen said. "We'll just have to put 'em on a back burner until we get through this. We'll do the things that need to get done by deadlines."

The state's financial picture, of a projected $5 billion shortfall in the next biennium, weighed heavily on commissioners' minds.

"We're operating on a huge Ponzi scheme," commissioner Don Carlson complained. "We put people in jail for doing the things we do," of expecting someone to pay for present-day shortfalls in the distant future.

"You're going to be the first one to deal with it, but you won't be the only one to deal with it," Robinson told Hansen.

"Please let me operate with my full-time staff," Hansen pleaded. "Just say yes."

The answer was still a resounding no.

Commissioner Dick Devine, trying to put a positive spin on the "misery loves company" theory, said county employees must work as a "single entity" to help each other out. If one department isn't busy during tax time, an employee from that department could be cross-trained to help Hansen out - or any other department feeling the pinch.

The hiring freeze does not apply to Hubbard County Social Services, which has seen its workload mushroom in challenging economic times.

Robinson told the Public Works Department, which usually relies on many part-time hires during the summer, that it needed to "look for a government program that will put people back to work" without hiring new employees.

The board will reassess the county budget mid-year and has discussed shortened workweeks if the economy doesn't improve.

Purchases are also coming under added scrutiny. A snow plow truck, which has been in the bidding process for two months, was the subject of much debate as the board voted 4-1 to approve the $166,364 purchase. Thirty-eight percent of the truck's cost will come from county funds; the remainder comes from state gas tax monies.

In voting against the purchase, Johannsen said it simply was not the right time to spend that type of money.

The board also voted to hold many departments at 2008 spending levels. At a work session last week, commissioners chopped nearly $600,000 off 2009 budget requests.

"If they can find more revenue than property taxes we'll be glad to spend that money," Robinson said.

After that work session, county department heads were to come up with revised budgets using those pared down figures. Not all complied.

"Those that didn't, just didn't understand what the message was," Robinson said.

At the end of the board meeting Wednesday, commissioners reiterated the bottom line. The work must get done, however possible, they agreed. Departments that don't incur overtime are probably overstaffed, Robinson suggested.

"Our department heads are confusing a hiring freeze with a work freeze," he said. "If through attrition we can reorganize, it beats firing someone."