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St. Croix County in better financial position than most

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While the economic downturn has hurt many counties across the nation, St. Croix County remains in reasonably good financial shape.

That's the message the St. Croix County Board heard Thursday during its regularly scheduled Committee of the Whole meeting.

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Bob Moore, investment advisor for the county, outlined a long list of bleak economic indicators which could mean that any national recovery will be slow in developing.

Much of the focus of Moore's presentation was on job creation and the retraining of our nation's workforce.

The nation's most recent monetary policies, which included federal stimulus packages to promote spending, actually led to most of the money being spent overseas to create jobs elsewhere, he said.

"We just blasted money out there and hoped it would do some good," Moore said of the stimulus package goal.

At the same time, Moore said, a large portion of the United States' workforce is unprepared to function in high-tech jobs that are opening up in industry. Some of those workers, termed the "lost generation," may never be productive members of society again, he added.

He commented that higher education, through universities, colleges and technical colleges, will be one key to improving the job market in the region. Other nations are doing a better job of training or retraining workers for the high-tech jobs of the future.

"We are getting our butts kicked around the globe," he said. "We need an educated workforce."

Now that stimulus monies are coming to an end, Moore said, it will be up to private industry to create sustainable job growth to help pull the economy out of its slump.

Current tax benefits for companies revolve around capital purchases, Moore said, and not necessarily job creation. More focus needs to be placed on employing people, rather than on equipment improvements, he noted.

Other disturbing economic signs, Moore pointed out, are home value deflation coupled with cost of living inflation; a lower level of home ownership; higher costs for energy; ever rising foreclosure rates; and concern about possible rising interest rates.

Even with all the bad news, Moore reported that St. Croix County is in a better position than a lot of places in the state and across the nation.

He said the county's general fund balance remains strong and taxes have remained reasonable.

"Thank God you're in the position you are," he said. "On paper, you guys are a good credit. You're a little higher on the list than a lot of other places."

The county's strong financial position shouldn't be taken for granted, however, Moore added.

Moore told the county supervisors that they need to communicate with the region's top employers, so elected officials are not surprised by any major announcements.

"Be in touch with those people so you know what's coming down the pipe," he urged. "Be involved and engaged with business owners."

At the same time, he told county officials to tell the story of what a great place St. Croix County is to live and to locate a business.

"The more proactive you can be the better," he said. "This is as beautiful a place as anywhere, and I travel all over. Why not live here?"

Several supervisors commented throughout Moore's presentation.

Supervisor Steven Hermsen said another key to pulling out of the economic mess is downsizing government, not just working with private businesses.

"We don't have a private sector to support the public sector we've got," he commented.

The key is profit for businesses, who then can hire more employees as they expand, Hermsen said.

Clarence "Buck" Malick said making the public sector smaller isn't always the answer. Making it less expensive can also work, he added.

"I would say efficiency is the key," he said.

One important step is finding out what the public "wants to buy" with its tax dollars, Malick said. In other words prioritizing the services provided by the county, he explained.

The Committee of the Whole presentation was a precursor to preliminary discussion about the 2012 county budget process.

Charlie Carlson, administrative consultant, hopes to institute a "priority-driven" budget process in the fall.

That process will begin with the county board deciding how much money they want to spend next year. The board members will then decide what programs and services they want to fund and at what levels that funding should be set.

"Most counties tend to just spend what they have," Carlson said. "They rarely go back and ask, 'if you were starting it today, would you do it, or would you do it this way.'"

By re-evaluating each department or program and its budget, Carlson said, county priorities can be identified and funded, and low-priority programs may be cut or eliminated.

Carlson urged supervisors to "do some thinking about this" and return to the next Committee of the Whole meeting with ideas on how to proceed with budgeting.

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