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Kandiyohi County sends letter to city of Willmar encouraging cooperative steps forward

WILLMAR — The Kandiyohi County Commissioners sent a letter to the city of Willmar on Tuesday formalizing an invitation for the two entities to begin a six-month exploration of collaborative efforts that could improve services and save taxpayer dollars.

The letter, which hints at conflicts on the City Council and the city's recent decision to shelve a consultant's recommendation to reorganize city departments, carries the clear message that change is necessary.

"Status quo and simply maintaining is not appropriate, nor realistic, in an ever-changing world," reads the letter, which was written by County Board Chairman Harlan Madsen.

"Our constituents deserve better than that, and we must forge ahead with research, discussion and good planning to position ourselves as a vibrant regional center for our future."

Madsen surprised his fellow county commissioners and County Administrator Larry Kleindl by presenting the letter during the County Board meeting Tuesday morning.

Madsen said he intentionally kept the letter private until the meeting to avoid any appearance of violating the Open Meeting Law.

He asked for, and received, the board's unanimous endorsement of the letter.

Commissioner Doug Reese, who had served on the Willmar City Council for 26 years before being elected to the County Board last year, offered the motion to send the letter to the city.

It was seconded by Commissioner Jim Butterfield, who also represents the city of Willmar.

Reese said he hopes the letter will "kick start" an effort that will not only be good for Willmar but the entire county.

In a later interview, Madsen said he felt compelled to write the letter after the Willmar City Council's split decision last month not to move forward with a reorganizational plan.

"I feel obligated to respond," said Madsen.

"I think it is our responsibility as elected officials to have those conversations. To explore diligently how we can provide better service — more efficiencies in an ever-changing environment," he said.

"Let's put aside any preconceived notion. Let's put aside any baggage. Let's put aside any attitudes," said Madsen, who said he hopes a joint county/city committee will focus on ways to serve citizens in an efficient and effective manner.

The county went through a study of its own that examined its operational structure in an effort to provide better services more economically.

As a result, the county is currently in the process of making changes that includes merging or blurring the lines between departments that had previously functioned in separate "silos."

The county also continues to forge new collaborative relationships with other counties and has a successful relationship with the city for the joint Economic Development Commission. The two entities are also in the process of merging their housing and redevelopment authorities and its expected that the city and county assessors will be merged in the future.

In a later interview, Kleindl said he and Willmar City Administrator Charlene Stevens work well together on cooperative efforts, such as staff training, and that the county has cooperative arrangements with the city of Willmar, as well as other cities, townships and school districts in the county. Regular meetings are held with all the different entities to discuss options for sharing services.

In his letter, which was addressed to Stevens, Madsen asked that Stevens and two City Council members join Kleindl and two county commissioners to serve on a work group to explore and evaluate current and future opportunities for the government units to more fully collaborate.

He said opportunities could range from joint purchasing and increased sharing of resources to combination and consolidation that could address issues of a "changing workforce, retirements, increased costs and demands, coupled with stable-to-shrinking resources."

When it comes to who those council members would be, Madsen said he is "keenly aware of the divergent opinions represented by council members" and suggested that that the appointed members represent "each of the primary opinions on the council."

Madsen asked that the group present a progress report to each government entity by the end of March.

Madsen acknowledged he was taking a risk by writing the letter and sending it to the city. He said he has no idea what the eventual outcome will be.

"But if we do nothing we will accomplish nothing," he said. "I clearly believe we have to move ahead if we're going to look at ourselves as a regional center."

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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