County Manager Column from Dec. 15, 2020

County board approves 2021 budget – providing taxpayer relief, retaining priorities

The board of commissioners unanimously approved the 2021 budget this morning, concluding a months-long, transparent process involving the community, leaders and staff from across the organization.

Watch the video

We are somewhat unique among counties because we have a two-year budget. There are many advantages to this, including stability and predictability for our communities and businesses, as well as alignment with the state’s budget process. Generally, we build our budgets for a biennium – such as the current one, 2020-2021 – then propose the budget to the board in a public session. Following that, we hold Service Team and department-level public hearings and then general public hearings. Then we make any adjustments and finally the board will consider and vote on the final two-year budget. The odd-numbered years (like 2021), which are the second year of the budget cycle traditionally only include minor adjustments. This year, of course, has been different.

Our organization has a broad set of obligations to our residents, businesses and other stakeholders. We have the board-established vision, mission and goals as well as our strategic priorities and values. A budget cycle provides the opportunity to prioritize, advance, refine and balance these. Since joining Ramsey County some eight years ago, during every budget cycle I have consistently heard commissioners talk about this dynamic – balancing our necessary, high-quality service delivery with our residents’ and businesses’ ability to pay. There are no easy or perfect answers. Yet changing our budget to adapt to the changing world around us ultimately felt like the right thing to do.

Because of COVID-19, as we planned for the 2021 supplemental budget we knew we had to act in order to ease the property tax burden on our residents and businesses even as our demand for services in key areas has increased dramatically. In response, we proposed reducing the property tax levy increase of 4.5% which had been approved for the two-year budget back in December 2019 to 0%. This reduction would also mean finding nearly $16 million in cost savings for next year. We used a blended strategy to achieve this – a strategy that would maintain services in those areas most in demand during the pandemic (Public Health, Financial Assistance, Workforce and business assistance through Community & Economic Development); that would ask other departments to adjust but without layoffs or furloughs; maintain our strategic priorities; and retain the structural soundness of the budget.

I’m very proud that our organization was able to achieve this and I’m thankful to all of our leaders and employees for going over and above – again – during a very challenging year to develop this solution. In short, we’ve used a blend of savings from departments (much of which has come from holding positions open), put off some major technology investments, and tapped our "fund balance" (our savings account). As our Chief Financial Officer, Alex Kotze, has reminded us throughout the process – if there has ever been a "rainy day" this is it! Due to our very strong tradition of excellent fiscal stewardship, we are able to make these adjustments whereas many other local governments across the country have, unfortunately, struggled dearly.

We have already begun our work to look ahead to the 2022-2023 budget to plan and prepare for proposing a strong balance for our communities into the future. We have so much engagement with our community during COVID that provides a foundation for this next budget, and we will need to carefully think about how to continue to improve on the process and outcomes that this two-year budget provided. We need you to be a part of that process, whether in the planning and/or implementation of the budget, and I thank you for joining us on this important and continual journey to build a stronger organization and community.

I encourage you to watch the video of today’s board meeting and again revisit the materials at ramseycounty.us/budget. Thank you to all of those who have worked on our budget process – with a special shoutout to the Finance department – to advance us past this milestone today.

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