SW Health and Human Services reaches balanced budget goal

MARSHALL — Southwest Health and Human Services had a three-year string of budget deficits, one that ended when it finished 2018 solidly in the black.

Agency director Beth Wilms said the six-county agency, which serves Lyon, Redwood, Murray, Lincoln, Pipestone and Rock counties, finished last year with a $95,000 financial gain. It previously drew on surplus funds each year from 2015-17.

Wilms said the budget is likely to come out ahead again in 2019. The margin will depend on total expenses, and how much they’re offset by levy revenue scheduled to be received in May or June, and block grant funding expected in July.

“Our budget adjustments aren’t just a one-year reduction,” she said. “We see them as the new norm. We’ve known that our expenses compared to revenue were not where they need to be, so we’ve done what’s necessary to bring everything in line.”

She added that changes have been made with the goal of still providing all needed services to residents of the six counties who qualify for human services assistance, but to do it in ways that can sustain the agency financially over the long term.

Wilms and fiscal manager Jennifer Kirchner said a large share of operating costs involve salaries and benefits for personnel.

To determine the right balance between client needs and program affordability, an evaluation system has been put in place to judge whether or not an open position is necessary. It’s based on both workload and its funding sources. Funding could be from local levy, state or federal appropriations, or some type of combination.

The evaluation process has reduced the total number of social services and public health employees from a peak of 247 several years ago.

“Staff reductions have been made when it’s advantageous following vacancies, when people either retire or move on because of career advancement,” Wilms said. “We’re working toward a sweet spot where we have a staffing level that’s the best we can do under the annual budgets. We’re not there yet, but it’s getting closer.”

Plans call for building financial reserves up to about $8 million, enough to withstand almost any unexpected temporary budget shortfall.

Additional cost-saving measures have included making sure that all staff expenses eligible for a reimbursement from an outside funding source are fully documented, a shift toward on-site and webinar training to reduce employee training travel, and coordination of supply and equipment orders.

“It’s a combination of ways that we can experience savings by having region-wide plans that include all of our offices,,” Kirchner said. “That usually doesn’t take extra time or travel because employees already see each other as they travel to serve clients.”

An annual budget overview was provided this week to Lincoln County commissioners. Board members voiced support for both the current budgeting objectives and the favorable trend with the fund balance.

“It’s going in a very good direction,” said Lincoln County Commissioner Corey Sik. “I’m impressed by how there’s been this much of a turnaround in only several years. As adjustments like the hiring process job reviews stay in place, they should lead to long range advantages.”

Lincoln County Commissioner Mic VanDeVere said he’d like to see long- term data compiled that shows how much is spent in each of the six counties to provide human services to local residents compared to how much each county pays in regional human services taxes.

He added that a comparison will show at least somewhat of an inflow in revenue because of how regional planning can help to bring in available state and federal grants. At the same time, it can avoid duplication for administrative positions as well as daily operating costs.

“We get back substantial amounts in return for tax dollars paid at the level and regional level,” VanDeVere said. “It’s important that we have statistics to show that.”