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Counties, legislators eager to forge new partnerships

WILLMAR -- The national recession and statewide budget deficit could give counties leverage in getting unfunded state mandates suspended.

Some of the mandates are seen as oppressive, unnecessary and financially exhausting to counties. Removing some of them would give counties flexibility in funding programs with less money.

The proposal will be discussed when the Legislature convenes Tuesday, according to local legislators.

But, in exchange, lawmakers may also ask that counties work together to consolidate duplicated services across county lines to reduce long-term costs.

Legislators may even ask if Minnesota still needs 87 counties, or if it makes sense to consolidate entire counties.

Whatever happens, state and county officials agree the daunting economic challenges will present an opportunity for radical reform in Minnesota.

"It's intriguing," said Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, of the possibilities of shaking up the state's system for delivering services.

"We have five months to come up with these radical reforms," said Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar. They won't all get done, but all will "be on the table in January," he said.

Earlier this month, Kandiyohi County was informed that it would lose $434,523 from its $1.9 million in state aid. The so-called "unallotment" was part of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's plan to reduce the state's 2008 deficit.

The county will use reserves to cover that shortfall, said Larry Kleindl, Kandiyohi County administrator.

But the unallotment of state aid is just the tip of the iceberg. Everyone knows there will be additional, longer-lasting cuts that will swing well into 2010 and 2011, Kleindl said.

That's why the Association of Minnesota Counties is proposing that some mandates, and "maintenance of effort" requirements that prevent counties from ever spending less money on certain programs, be suspended or eliminated.

Some of the rules and mandates the state imposes on counties are outdated and "no longer have a purpose," Kleindl said. Counties also want more control in how they spend their money.

If the state wants counties to be partners in the process of reducing the state's budget, Kleindl said, the Legislature should lift some mandates and redesign government in order to be cost-effective.

"We are willing to be at the table, but we're saying, allow us to use some of our expertise," he said, while acknowledging that the changes for the state would be big.

But Juhnke said everything will be on the table when the Legislature convenes next month, including discussing the cause and effect of removing some unfunded mandates from counties.

Gimse said he favors removing some of the mandates. He said the issue came up during a recent meeting he attended with Gov. Pawlenty.

"That is an area where we can certainly loosen up some of the requirements we have on counties," Gimse said. That would allow counties to trim their budgets and provide services without having to "raid local property taxes to pay for it."

Counties are an extension of the state and provide important services to citizens. But when the state forces counties to do things a certain way, or spend a certain amount of money for specific programs, counties bear some heavy burdens, Kleindl said.

Juhnke said he's "not excited" about shifting any more costs down to property taxpayers.

"It's a money issue, let's not deny that," he said. "But let's not be dictators. Let's be partners."

Juhnke said the Legislature should consider removing mandates, but he wants counties to look at ways to consolidate and streamline services on a regional basis, much like the current court system.

He said, for example, counties could share highway departments. "Roads go across county lines," he said. With some counties boasting a population of fewer than 5,000, Juhnke said consolidating services or even consolidating entire counties are options to consider.

The state is also looking at departments that can be merged or eliminated, Juhnke said.

Kleindl said the economic crisis is an opportunity to make positive changes.

Juhnke agrees.

"We can bury our head in the sand and say, 'woe is me,' but it's an opportunity to come out strong," he said. "We want to lead in this and be forward thinking."

Carolyn Lange

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

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