Proposal for redesign of government good place to begin debate
WILLMAR -- When Kandiyohi County Board Chairman Richard Falk saw a proposed 10-point plan for redesigning state and county governments, his response was "hooray."
Not because he agreed with every point presented in the Association of Minnesota Counties' plan that was unveiled this week, but because it provided a starting place for discussion and debate.
During a press conference Wednesday in Willmar, Falk said he "applauds AMC for starting the dialogue for change" and he asked the county's department heads to "look at the pros and cons" of the plan.
The plan includes bold proposals for preserving services while cutting $645 billion in state expenses. Some points in the plan have been discussed for years among Association of Minnesota Counties members and some should have been approved "years ago," said Falk. But none of are "etched in stone" he said.
County board member Harlan Madsen, a past president of the Association of Minnesota Counties and a current committee member, acknowledged there has been anger, angst and a "whole lot of fear and anxiety" expressed by some county representatives from around the state.
He said the goal of presenting the plan was to generate discussion and "not to create angry people."
But Madsen said the current "slash and burn" path the state is on to cut the budget and cut programs is also creating anger and "leaving people vulnerable" and "public safety in jeopardy."
The Association of Minnesota Counties plan holds "possible answers" to solve the state's unsustainable system of funding services, Madsen said, adding that the consequences of implementing the proposals has not been thoroughly vetted and analyzed.
Kandiyohi County Community Corrections Director Deb West said she likes the proposal to replace the state's three probation systems with a single system.
The current system "makes no sense," she said. "I'm feeling real positive about this," said West, referring to the proposal for a statewide community corrections/probation program.
County Attorney Boyd Beccue said the Minnesota County Attorneys Association has discussed many of the points in the plan for reforming the court system, including the use of interactive television for some court proceedings and using less-expensive county magistrates rather than judges to hear certain civil and minor offenses.
Another proposal to use county deputies or city police to patrol state highways instead of State Patrol troopers may not be that big of a change from what's currently happening in Kandiyohi County. Beccue said most of the stops and citations on state highways in the county are currently handled by local officers. Reducing the State Patrol by 50 percent could save $75 million, according to the Association of Minnesota Counties.
The plan also calls for the elimination of county aid and the creation of a half-cent county sales tax. Madsen said nearly 90 percent of the county aid is already gone. Getting revenue from a sales tax would give counties an option to pay for services rather than increasing property taxes.
When asked about the proposal for counties to take over the maintenance of state highways, except freeways, Kandiyohi County Public Works Supervisor Gary Danielson said it wasn't "on the top of my list of things to do."
He said it could be difficult for county employees, who are accustomed to plowing two-lane county roads, to work on four-lane highways with loops and overpasses that require different equipment and different training.
Danielson said flexibility in providing services is crucial to reducing costs while still providing services.
The Association of Minnesota Counties plan has ignited a flurry of discussion and e-mails among county attorneys this week. Beccue advised that statutes be reviewed to make sure that a change intended to create a positive outcome does not have an unexpected negative repercussion.
Presenting the Association of Minnesota Counties plan to the public and legislative committees was done now to help "break the gridlock" at the Legislature, Madsen said.
Even though it's unlikely any of the proposals will be approved yet this year, Madsen said waiting until the summer to begin discussion would be too late.