The First Cut

With lean budget times in the forecast, Hennepin County prepares to kill "optional" programs like sexual-violence prevention. But is it just a case of bad management?

THERE WAS A time when Hennepin County had a national reputation for services to victims of rape and sexual assault. The county pioneered the widely copied Domestic Abuse Program, an advocacy service housed in the county attorney's office; and it used its residents' property-tax money to support a Sexual Violence Center and a Rape and Sexual Assault Center. The centers provide counseling for victims, a crisis hotline, free legal clinics, education programs for community groups and schools, and a variety of other services.

All that's about to change, however, in a series of drastic cutbacks proposed for this year's county budget. The cuts would eliminate county contracts with both centers totaling more than $230,000, slashing the organizations' total budget by about one-quarter. Barbara Novy, director of the Sexual Violence Center, says a cut of that magnitude could kill both centers--and, she suggests, affiliated agencies in Scott and Carver Counties as well. County officials say the cuts are inevitable under state laws forcing them to spend more on certain mandatory services while collecting fewer tax dollars. Critics both inside and outside the Government Center, however, maintain that the county's own bad management and skewed priorities are to blame.

According to Nancy Palmer, the county's tax analyst, sweeping property-tax reforms passed by the Minnesota Legislature this year limit the county to a 3.7 percent increase in tax revenue. At the same time, the county faces a $13 million increase in the cost of caring for abused or troubled youth, plus a contract-mandated $10 million wage increase for its workers. That, Palmer says, means the county won't have enough money to pay the bills unless services are cut.

But when it comes to cutting, not all services are equal. Foster-care and similar programs are mandated by the state and federal governments; so are care for the mentally ill, programs for the chemically dependent, maintenance of an adequate court system, and the increased paperwork required under welfare reform. Thus, says County Administrator Jeff Spartz, the county is putting "optional" programs such as sexual violence prevention and recovery on the chopping block. And rather than decreasing funding across the board, he says, administrators work under an "informal policy" of slicing entire programs.

Theoretically at least, none of the cuts are set in stone yet. The draft budget for the adult-services department, which includes sexual-violence programs, is slated for a vote October 7, and public hearings are scheduled for mid-November. The seven commissioners won't have to vote on a final budget until December 9. In the meantime, advocates hope to convince county commissioners to restore their funding by taking a leaf from the budget cutter's book: They'll argue that their programs actually save money.

The centers help victims through the trauma of sexual assault, explains Margaret Wood, development director at the Sexual Violence Center; without such support, the experience can lead to such expensive problems as chemical dependency and mental illness (for which, remember, the county is required to provide services). The centers also provide free legal clinics and advocates whose duties include helping victims who want to get their assailants prosecuted. If that courtroom support disappears, says county attorney Mike Freeman, there would be "a very significant impact on the health of victims, and it would negatively impact our prosecution rate." And since sex offenders rarely strike just once, the reasoning goes, fewer prosecutions could mean more assaults.

But much as "violence prevention" is a favored buzzword among administrators, social-service help these days is guaranteed only when tragedy has already struck. As county administrator Jeff Spartz puts it, "Acute and remedial events take priority. It's just the way our political and legal system is structured."

Not necessarily, critics say. In a $430-million budget, they argue, the county should be able to find the $300,000 necessary to maintain sexual-violence services. Freeman says he supports saving the programs. And Community Corrections head Jan Smaby says she's calculated that her division alone could save as much as $1 million through more efficient management. Instead, funding for the unit--which includes politically popular programs such as adult and juvenile detention--increased by $5 million, some 15 times the total budget of sexual-violence prevention programs countywide.

But those arguments may be moot in the long term. As Spartz notes, the same state-mandated property tax reforms that limit a county's tax levy for 1998 also reduce the property-tax rates paid by commercial and industrial properties and upscale homes. That means a lean county budget is in the forecast for years to come. And it's likely that no amount of wrangling will be able to transform "optional" programs like violence prevention into mandatory services.

 
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