Changing economy drives counties to change how they do business
The recession, a reduction in revenues and the mantra that government should “live within its means” has meant many county governments have streamlined staff while still trying to provide the same level of services the state mandates and the public demands.
But the call for government to be run more like a business can mean a shake-up of long-standing government structures that isn’t always warmly received by the public and can sometimes be stopped by voters.
The mixed message of wanting local government to change and spend less, but yet stay the same, can put elected officials between a rock and a hard place.
Request for efficiency
As Big Stone County’s population steadily shrunk over the years to a current level of about 5,000, the county has reduced staff and formed partnerships with other counties to provide services at a cost-savings.
For example, they are part of a multi-county public health department and 911 calls are taken by dispatchers in Kandiyohi County.
But they still maintain three separate offices and staff for the county auditor, treasurer and recorder.
In 1992 they attempted to follow in the footsteps of other counties and combine the two offices of auditor and treasurer, which have many over-lapping duties.
The measure was soundly defeated and the county is one of a handful that does not have a combined auditor/treasurer office.
In 2012, with even more financial pressure to reduce costs, Big Stone County Commissioners sought voter approval to make the auditor, treasurer and recorder jobs appointed rather than elected.
“It was a search for efficiency,” said Big Stone County Commissioner Brent Olson. “We’re spending other people’s money so you need a relentless drive for efficiency.”
The Commissioners weren’t planning to immediately eliminate any of the department heads but wanted “flexibility” for the future, like when an office-holder decides to retire, said Olson. He estimates a reduction of a department head could save the county about $40,000, or 1 percent of the county levy.
The issue was defeated by a 4-1 margin in November.
“So essentially the voters voted to raise their taxes,” said Olson.
People like to vote
“People like feeling that people are accountable to them, and they like voting for as many of them as they can,” said Olson, who understands the need and passion people have for voting. But considering that the proposal was made in the name of saving taxpayer money, Olson was perplexed with the results.
“They decided these other issues are more important than efficiency, so I’ll honor their statement.”
Preserving the right to vote is held dearly by Minnesotans.
Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, has not supported past efforts by counties that sought special legislation to appoint currently elected officials.
He’s publicly stated that he trusts voters to make educated decisions when electing officials for positions with complicated job duties, like county auditor, treasurer and recorder. If they don’t do a good job, Falk said voters will elect someone new.
Minnesotans do vote for far fewer people now than they did in the past.
Years ago voters elected most public officials like school superintendents, police chiefs, county highway engineers, clerk of courts, coroners, assessors and surveyors.
The county sheriff and attorney are still elected positions, but candidates are required by law to have professional skills and licenses.
The only legal requirement to be a county auditor, treasurer or recorder is to be at least 21 years old, be a resident and have the $50 filing fee to get your name on the ballot.
“It has nothing to do with qualifications,” said Big Stone County Auditor Michelle Knutson. “If you’re popular you can win.”
This is despite the fact that those jobs demand a growing list of skill sets and ability to use technology. Those officials do not set policy, like county commissioners do, but must follow technical job descriptions that are set in state law.
Olson said he’s aware of several counties that hired additional people to do the work of an elected official who didn’t have the skills for the job.
Knutson, who personally supported the proposal to have her job be appointed rather than elected, said the change would’ve allowed the county to move duties across department lines and distribute the workload between the department heads and their small staff.
Because the state dictates the duties of offices, counties have little-to-no leeway to adjust it, she said.
Knutson said she understands the desire of voters to elect officials. But she said if that’s the case then every public official should be elected.
Another option, she said, is for the state to require professional qualifications to be a county auditor, treasurer and recorder.
Swift County is one of the few in the state that won voter approval to appoint its auditor and recorder.
State records indicate most counties fail to win voter approval to appoint rather than elect the auditor, treasurer and recorder. Besides Big Stone County, voters in Pope County also said “no” to that proposal during the November 2012 general election.
The timing of the vote in Swift County coincided with the retirement of long-time elected officials there. The county treasurer, who is not retiring now, will continue to be elected, however.
The change is allowing the county to blur the lines between departments that should make efficient use of employees and make it easier for residents to get services, like recording land transactions and paying taxes, according to county commissioners.
Because Swift County recently hired an administrator who is taking on some of the auditor’s duties it’s not known if the change will result in any immediate cost-savings.
Swift County Board Chairman Joe Fox said it’s hoped the new administrator will help oversee the reorganization of county departments.
“We want people cross-trained from office to office,” said Fox. “We’re going for more efficiency.”
Change isn’t new
Other area counties made the shift from elected to appointed positions years ago by obtaining special legislation that allowed County Commissioners to take action to appoint officials.
In 2005 Lac qui Parle received special legislation that allowed the auditor and treasurer positions to be combined and appointed. The recorder is also now an appointed position.
Jacob Sieg, who was the first appointed auditor/treasurer for Lac qui Parle County, said there were some internal adjustments but it was a “seamless” transition for the public.
Because of the highly technical nature of the jobs, Sieg said it makes sense to appoint officials, which allows small counties to seek viable applicants from a wider pool of candidates. It also allows counties to require candidates to have specific qualifications, like having a four-year college degree, or being a certified public accountant or having experience.
Yellow Medicine County has taken even greater steps to change how they do business.
They not only appoint officials but they have eliminated the positions and titles altogether and created new departments with new names under a comprehensive restructuring plan.
The auditor/treasurer, recorder and assessor’s offices have been combined into the “property and public services” department that handles services ranging from land records, property assessments, elections, taxation and vital statistics.
The “finance and administration” department handles day-to-day operations in Yellow Medicine County, directs the county’s financial activities, manages human resources and coordinates the budget process.
Because the county is “paving new ground” with its organizational model the transition has had a few hurdles since it was implemented in 2011 but, overall, it’s going well, said Janel Timm, who is head of the Yellow Medicine property and public services department.
Once the county remodels a former bank building that was recently purchased they’ll be able to complete the transition by having a facility that will allow staff to provide “one window” service for their transactions.
Timm said the complex duties of auditor, treasurer and recorder that are mandated by the state have changed over the years.
“The level of knowledge a person needs to develop and maintain may be quite different than 20-30 years ago,” she said.
“It’s interesting and exciting. Never boring,” said Timm. “We’re moving toward the future.”
More and more counties are considering giving their counties an organizational make-over that includes getting the approval to appoint officials.
Kandiyohi County is in the midst of a transition but has yet to win legislative approval to begin the process for appointing their auditor/treasurer and recorder. Even if the special legislation is approved there’s no guarantee that the necessary four out of the five Kandiyohi County Commissioners will vote in favor of continuing the process.
Meanwhile, given the number of negative comments from constituents and resounding message from voters, Big Stone County officials say it will likely be a long time before another attempt is made to change the government structure there.
“It’s not fun getting beat up,” said Olson.