County Manager Column from Aug. 26, 2020

This column was originally published as a "From the County Manager" column on our employee intranet.

2021 budget proposal retains priorities while easing tax burden on residents and businesses

Today was the third time I have had the privilege and opportunity of presenting a budget proposal to the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners. At Ramsey County, we use a two-year (biennial) budget cycle and 2021 is the second year of this cycle. In normal times, this second year would be focused on performance measures, with only minor fiscal adjustments. As you are well aware, this year is something we never could have predicted, and this year’s proposal to the board therefore became a full budgeting and performance measurement year rolled into one.

When I proposed the 2020-2021 budget to the board in late 2019, we were focused on building out and solidifying initiatives that advanced the board’s strong commitment to our vision, mission, goals and strategic direction. These are:

  • Racial Equity and Community Engagement.
  • Residents First Polices, Practices and People, Technology and Facilities.
  • Talent Attraction, Retention and Promotion.
  • Transforming Systems Together.

In the 2021 supplemental budget proposed today, we remain committed to these priorities for our strategic direction while recognizing the hardships that our families and business are facing as a result of COVID-19. Where the board approved a 4.5% property tax levy increase totaling about $15 million in late 2019, today we proposed to reduce that to a 0% increase. Including projected revenue drops, we’ll need to make up about $20 million total to balance out in 2021.

Proposing a 0% increase is never easy, and it isn’t a sustainable long-term approach to effectively serving our community, managing through inflationary costs, and positioning Ramsey County as a top employer within the country, state and region. However, thanks to many years of prudent financial stewardship and always preparing for the next challenge, Ramsey County is well positioned to shift its approach for 2021 while remaining aligned with the strategic path that it is on.

As a major regional employer and people-driven service organization, a majority of the reduced 2021 budget will come through continuing our 2020 approach of holding positions open and thinking very carefully about each hiring opportunity that presents itself. We will also continue to fully support the areas most in need due to COVID-19,  just as we have this year – Public Health, Financial Assistance, housing, workforce and small business supports are some examples – but all Service Teams continue to identify approaches to address community needs and service approaches. As I have said throughout this year, I remain opposed to layoffs or furloughs being used to address our current budgetary challenges – at this time there are more effective approaches we can utilize and our communities desperately need the services provided by Ramsey County and its employees. In the near term, I also think it’s short-sighted to eliminate positions because we will likely have opportunities to adjust some of our initial strategies and hopefully fill some vacant spots as 2021 progresses; it is reasonable to assume that we will better understand the health and economic landscape around us in six months than what we know today.

The remainder of the $20 million is proposed to be made up through deferring some planned technology investments and using a one-time transfer from our "savings account" (also known as Fund Balance) to fund some areas of work that will not create structural budget balances beyond 2021. If we’ve ever had a rainy day, this is it. We’re thankful to be in a position to be fiscally resilient – many local governments across the county are not. This is due to a strong position of prudent investment and financial management that goes back a long way. In my time here, through every budget cycle I’ve heard our board reference the critical importance of the balance between community needs and taxpayers’ ability to pay. I feel good that today we presented a plan for a 2021 budget that does just that and still provides a degree of flexibility to address unknowns.

Joining me for our presentation today were Policy & Planning Director Elizabeth Tolzmann, County Assessor Luis Rosario and Auditor/Treasurer Chris Samuel. I encourage you to watch the video of the entire presentation to get a full picture of how all of these pieces relate to one another.

Watch a video of the proposed budget presentation to the board

As you’ll see in the video, we remain committed to our performance measures – and have arguably put forward the most concise and focused set of these yet entirely on our open data portal. I encourage you to have a look at these measures that each department sets to gauge how we are progressing toward our operational and policy goals.

Special thanks to Finance and Policy & Planning, our Service Team leaders and controllers for the long hours of work behind this proposed budget. And thanks to you for staying committed to this organization and serving our community through this challenging and uncertain time.