County Manager Column from May 27, 2020

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

Course correcting now to propose a 2021 budget that continues to reflect our values

An organization’s budget is really where the "rubber hits the road" in matching plans and priorities to material reality. It is certainly a financial document, but it’s also a moral statement. In Ramsey County’s budgets, our residents, businesses and community stakeholders can transparently see the values of our organization woven throughout in support of our vision, mission and goals.

At Ramsey County, we use a two-year (biennial) budget cycle. We’re currently in the first year of the 2020-2021 budget. You may recall that last December our board of commissioners approved our budget amounts and property tax levy for both 2020 and 2021. In typical times, going into the second year of a budget around this time of year, we’d be focused on working with service teams and departments to refine performance measures – the metrics we use to monitor how we are doing against our goals. But these, of course, are anything but typical times. 

COVID-19 has presented us with a once-a-century trial. Families and individuals are worried about their health and their futures, unemployment is already as high here as it has been in a generation and small businesses are facing sustained hardships with many having to shut their doors. Counties are often the community’s safety net and our community will need us – especially in the areas of public health and public safety, financial assistance, and workforce and economic development – as it rarely has. We all have important contributions to make now and throughout the months and years ahead to overcome the effects of this pandemic in all aspects of community life.

We’re going to have budgetary challenges ourselves – we anticipate the strong possibility of lower property tax revenues this year and have lost revenue in areas like rentals of our parks facilities that have supported our operations. We’re also going to need to take a very hard look at the property tax levy proposed for 2021 as we reassess the balance between services provided and our residents’ and businesses’ ability to pay.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about our plans for the $96 million we have received from the federal government through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Though we are very grateful for this needed assistance, we do need to use this money by the end of the year – or lose it. Also, we can’t use it to replace lost revenue or to cover previously budgeted expenses. We’re going to need to work very hard for the remainder of the year to expeditiously use these funds to support individuals and families, those looking for work, and small businesses. We are hopeful for more federal funding to support local governments, but if it does not come, what we have now will be for the next seven months and not for relief in 2021.

Our board will make the final decision about changes to the 2021 budget, of course. But as we look ahead to a very different 2021 than we had planned for, we are going to need to take actions now in preparation. Many areas of our work changed dramatically – in mid-March we took a week and redesigned our services in a way that minimized person-to-person contact as others were shutting down. I have previously communicated that I’m not interested in looking at furloughs or layoffs to reduce expenses at this juncture. We will continue to adapt, shift and evolve, and we plan to do it with our current workforce with sensible redeployments when necessary – there will be no shortage in demand. We’re currently restricting hiring as Service Teams sustain more open positions. Through 2021, our organization will need to hold a significantly higher "vacancy rate" than we had planned when our budget was approved. We’re also going to need to defer some large investments, such as in technology platforms.

Our vision, mission and goals will continue to guide us, and even as we are revisiting the numbers in the second year of our budget cycle, we will continue to pursue completion of work we have undertaken through our strategic priorities, too. How we tackle that work will need to change in this new landscape, but our commitment to our strategic priorities and our values will remain.

Many years of thoughtful and responsible fiscal stewardship and commitment to outcomes through performance measures have put Ramsey County in a strong position compared to many municipalities that are struggling throughout the county. I’m confident that as we prepare for our new reality in 2021, we will meet its challenges by working together.

As always, thanks for all you do and be well!