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State finances will demand redesign of county services

WILLMAR -- The grim news about the state's economy, for the short term and the long term, will leave few choices but to rethink and redesign how services are delivered by counties.

"This is a really challenging time," said Jim Mulder, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties, in a video conference this week of area county officials, including Kandiyohi County.

Because the national trend for an aging population will put increasing pressure on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and with a state budget that's top-heavy with expenses compared to revenues, Mulder said the current system is not sustainable.

"We can keep on the path, and do it well, but we can't sustain exactly what we're doing," he said.

He called the situation a "ponzi scheme for government services" that relies on continued growth in revenue at the bottom of the pyramid to pay for services.

But there has been "exponential growth" in expenditures and stagnant growth in revenues, he said, and the pyramid is starting to crumble under the weight.

Mulder predicts more of the state's budget will shift from education and infrastructure to caring for people over age 65.

He said the public may believe welfare money goes to "single moms living alone." And in a sense that's true, he quipped. "There are a lot of single moms living in nursing homes."

With the state's growing deficit, Mulder said "every dime" counties get from the state to operate programs "will be at risk."

He said counties will have to look at investments and revenues to make sure they have enough money to cover lack of funds when the state either delays, or eliminates, payments because the sate won't have money in the bank to cover the check.

Redesigning the system for how counties deliver state services is the way to improve chances of success, Mulder said.

The Association of Minnesota Counties is proposing a two-tier redesign of programs, including programs for children in need of protective services, the court system and state mandates.

The plans calls on the state to let county officials made decisions that most affect their counties and communities, creates transparency between state and counties and gives local governments the "flexibility to be innovators."

The primary part of the plan pertains creating "service delivery authorities" that would promote community partnerships as a more efficient way to provide services.

The plan could have counties sharing departments, equipment and delivery of services in order to be more efficient.

Kandiyohi County, which provides emergency dispatching services for Big Stone County, is one example of how efficiencies can be achieved, Mulder said.

He said the public doesn't care what color squad car shows up at their door or if the building inspector is from the county or the city, they just want the service.

It's an opportunity to "rethink how we do every single thing," Mulder said. "Moving forward is important, but it won't always be easy."

While the proposals by the Association of Minnesota Counties would involve changes on the county level, they require changes by the state as well, such as simplifying or eliminating some reporting or auditing requirements that take considerable staff time and money to complete and allowing counties to implement a four-day work week.

Carolyn Lange

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

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