Sequestration outlook cloudy for county

Officials unsure how federal budget cuts affect programs

WashCo_logoThe forecast on how sequestration affects Washington County is apparently as murky as the cloudy, snow-filled skies Tuesday.

“There’s still a lot we don’t know about it,” said County Administrator Molly O’Rourke during Tuesday morning’s Board of Commissioners meeting.

And officials with the Public Health and Environment and Community Services departments could shed little additional light for commissioners about the affects the latest budget battle in Washington, D.C., would have on their offices.

“I don’t know very much about how sequestration affects us,” said Lowell Johnson, DPHE director. “We’re watching to see if the dollars impact us.”

“We don’t have any final guidance yet,” added Michelle Kemper, DCS deputy director.
Johnson and Kemper said preliminary information about sequestration’s impact on their departments indicates some programs would be spared cuts in federal funds while others could be affected in the weeks ahead.

One example Johnson cites is the county’s child and adult vaccination programs funded through the federal Centers of Disease Control. He said the child vaccine program is spared under sequestration, but not the adult program.

“The vaccine for children is an entitlement and is not subject to cuts,” he said.
But the vaccination program for uninsured and under-insured adults would be subject to sequestration-related funding cuts, Johnson added.

Regarding the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program, Johnson said his department received a Feb. 27 memo from state officials saying there would be no changes through the end of March.

“We do have the funds. We do have the revenue and staff to serve our clients through March,” he said.

If cuts are made to WIC after this month, it would affect the state’s WIC clients, Johnson admitted.

“That would have a significant impact in Minnesota,” he said.

Kemper said the bulk of her department’s $13 million in federal funds is exempt from sequestration-related cuts.

“About $10 million is exempt. About $3 million is subject to sequester,” she noted.
Among DCS programs exempt from cuts are SNAP nutrition program, Medicaid, child support enforcement and some unemployment benefits, Kemper said.

DCS programs that could face cuts include community development block grants, displaced workers and veteran’s training programs, according to Kemper.

“We don’t have any information about how that might affect us. We don’t anticipate any staff adjustments at this time with the information we have,” she said.

Commissioners also heard an update on the current legislature from county legislative liaison John Kaul. Kaul said lawmakers are addressing several issues on the county’s legislative agenda, but it remains difficult to predict what the legislature will do over the next several months.

“As far as bringing clarity, I’m not sure I can do that,” he said.

But Kaul said it appears lawmakers will address the wheelage tax metro-area counties annually charge vehicle owners.

“I’m optimistic about the wheelage tax. They’ll either go to $20 or take the cap off and level it off,” he said, adding that the levy could be expanded to all the state’s counties.

Kaul is less optimistic that lawmakers will agree to a “robust” bonding bill Gov. Mark Dayton is rumored to be developing.

“You need a certain number of Republican votes and I’m not sure there’s enough Republican votes there,” Kaul said. “If it gets too expansive, I don’t think you’ll see a bonding bill.”

Kaul also believes the final weeks of the session will be busier than the first two months.

“I guess in summation, I would say we got off to a slow start,” he said. “It’s going to be chaotic. They’re going to be going day and night.”