County Board to legislators: Bickering must end for state to right its ship
WILLMAR -- Still stinging from the unallotment of state funds, and fearing more of the same this year, the Kandiyohi County Commissioners told area legislators Tuesday that local units of government have borne the burden of the state's budget deficit.
It's time, they said, for the Legislature and governor to stop partisan bickering and make decisions that are good for the people of the state.
"We are not cry babies," said County Board Chairman Richard Falk, while addressing Sen. Joe Gimse and Reps. Al Juhnke and Paul Anderson. "We handled your unallotment very well."
After getting less state money, the county solved its budget crisis by prioritizing services and relying on county employees to take pay cuts and unpaid furloughs.
"We're a shining example for what the state can do," said Falk.
But if the state continues to solve its financial problems by passing them onto local units of government, "then it is not a very good partnership," said Falk.
If there ever was "fluff" in the county budget, it's long gone, said Commissioner Richard Larson, who asked the legislators not to balance the state budget "at our expense."
County Administrator Larry Kleindl said the combination of state-imposed levy limits and unallotment of state funds gave counties a "double whammy."
Imposing levy limits implies the state doesn't trust grassroots, locally elected officials to make decisions that are good for the people who elected them, said Kleindl.
Kleindl also said that reducing employees and cutting services "sounds good in theory" until it's your loved ones who need the services. "Then it hits home."
County Attorney Boyd Beccue said if the state continues to cut county funding, then it also needs to reduce mandates that force counties to provide certain services.
"A vast majority of what we do is mandated by you," said Beccue.
While acknowledging the difficult task the Legislature will have in trying to balance an ever-growing deficit and saying they appreciate the local legislators, the commissioners were blunt.
Commissioner Dean Shuck said the last legislative session was "kind of a joke" because of the partisan standoffs.
"We're hoping you guys can get along (this year)," he said, and "get something done" rather than "leave it up to the governor."
Pointing out that Republicans Gimse and Anderson were sitting on one side of the room and Juhnke, a DFL'er, was sitting across the aisle in the commissioners' room, Shuck light-heartedly said the chances of getting bipartisan agreement this year didn't appear too likely.
Kleindl also encouraged the legislators to "work for the state and not the party."
Jay Kieft, family services director, asked legislators to "simplify" paperwork and regulations that can strangle delivery of service and to support the Association of Minnesota Counties' proposal for redesigning family services rather than Gov. Pawlenty's "arbitrary" plan for consolidating counties into regional family service districts.
Juhnke was also blunt, warning the commissioners that there will be more substantial, unpopular budget cuts.
He said "major reform" in how local governments, like schools and counties, operate and provide services is needed. "The time has come to do reform in a big way," he said, asking if the state really needs 347 school districts.
But Juhnke also said the budget cannot be balanced without raising new revenue or without drastically changing how Minnesota looks.
Anderson acknowledged that the state "hasn't taken the lead" when it comes to putting freezes on wages and hiring.
But Anderson was also critical of a judge's recent ruling against Pawlenty's unallotment of a family service program. Saying it was a political decision, Anderson said the ruling will open up the state for more lawsuits and the possibility of increasing state debt even more if program funding is restored.
Gimse applauded local units of government for dealing with the "arduous" job of handling budget cuts and shifts. He said local entities were "taking on the task nobly" and he hoped the state would do the same in the future.
Commissioner Dennis Peterson said he knew better than to ask for more money, but he did ask the legislators to help protect the county's lakes by increasing fines for people spreading zebra mussels.
Citing the state's refusal to allow the county to use a landfill savings account to pay for an expensive fire this fall at the landfill, Larson asked the legislators to give counties more flexibility in using its own money.
The Legislature reconvenes on Feb. 4.