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$5B deficit creates chance for change in county-state government relationship

WILLMAR -- The $5 billion state deficit is not only a "big honking number," according to Kandiyohi County Commissioner Harlan Madsen, but it also represents an opportunity to change how the state and counties do business with each other and the public.

"It gives us the opportunity to reassess," said Madsen, who is supporting a proposal by the Association of Minnesota Counties called the Minnesota Redesign project.

Association Executive Director Jim Mulder and local county commissioners have been touring the state to talk to media about the proposals that they say would be more transparent, flexible and innovative.

The bold proposal is equal parts "changing culture" and "changing tactics," said Mulder during a visit to the Tribune offices this week.

The plan would allow counties to shake loose from some financial state constraints and get out from under the one-size-fits-all requirements that the state imposes for some programs, like funding libraries and mental health.

The association had been sketching out a redesign proposal for the last year but was not planning to go public with it until later.

But when the state's budget deficit, which will affect county budgets, became known, the association decided the time was right to launch its plan and seek legislative approval for some short-term measures.

County commissioners from around the state rallied around the proposal when it was discussed earlier this week at the association convention in Duluth.

One of the goals, Madsen said, is to create a system that most efficiently delivers services.

"We don't serve counties. We don't serve states. We serve people," Madsen said.

With the state looking for budget reductions, Madsen said there could be a missed opportunity if the plan was not introduced now. "Shame on us," he said, if the opportunity is missed.

One of the first requests the counties have is that state leaders stop using county taxpayers as "the state's ATM" to pay for services the state is unwilling or unable to pay for with state money, Mulder said.

One issue that's a thorn in the side of counties is housing state "short-term" felons who have six months or less remaining on their sentence. Since 2003, as part of the state's budget-balancing act, counties have been required to house those felons in county jails. The state pays counties $9 a day -- far below the actual costs.

Kandiyohi County is the ninth top county in Minnesota to house those prisoners in 2008, according to the association, which is proposing the short-term offender program be eliminated and become voluntary, with contracts forged between the state and counties.

Another bone counties have to pick is the issue of "maintenance of effort" for programs such as libraries and mental health care. The state prohibits local governments from reducing their financial commitment for libraries "under any circumstances," according to the association, even if usage has decreased in counties with declining populations.

A similar maintenance of effort requirement is in place for mental health services for adults and children. Counties are required to fund those services at no less than their 2004-05 levels, even if less expensive options are in place as a result of the restructuring of the state's mental health system. The state has forced counties to spend more in some cases.

"Requiring a continued dollar amount based on an arbitrary point in time is not the best way to ensure continued commitment to mental health," according to the association. The group is asking the Legislature to repeal that spending requirement and instead approve a "clear set of mental health guidelines and outcomes for counties to meet."

According to the association, the state imposes about 60 different "maintenance of effort" requirements on local governments.

Jay Kieft, director of Kandiyohi County Family Services, said the state maintenance of effort requirements "tie our hands big time." Making changes that would allow counties more flexibility to provide services could also be an opportunity to "simplify" systems that, for example, require social workers to spend hours every day filling out forms instead of working with people.

Part of the process of change will require putting aside personalities and "partisan goofiness," Mulder said.

The plan has received positive feedback so far from legislative leaders and the governor's office, he said.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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