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Fears increase that more costs will be passed down to counties

WILLMAR -- The fall of several large financial institutions and the fear that federal budget problems will trickle down to Minnesota counties has the Kandiyohi County Commissioners saying enough is enough.

Counties are "sick and tired" of the state "spending money out of our checkbook," said Chairman Richard Larson.

Because of state budget-cutting moves this spring, counties are now paying the bill for court-appointed attorneys for parents in child protection cases. Counties are also getting much less money to house the state's short-term prisoners.

With more financial troubles at the federal level, and the possibility of a $1 billion state deficit by 2010, there's concern counties will be hit again.

Larson will be going to St. Paul on Thursday when the Association of Minnesota Counties will begin a series of peaceful demonstrations to get the word out to state leaders that the state budget should not be balanced on the backs of local governments.

Some counties will bring orange jail jumpsuits to place on the steps of the Capitol, Larson said in an interview Tuesday.

It will demonstrate their frustration with the state's decision to cut the reimbursement rate for housing state prisoners from $33 a day to $8 or $9 a day. The actual cost to house prisoners is $55 a day, he said.

While he won't be bringing the orange garb to protest state action, Larson said he supports the efforts of the Association of Minnesota Counties to protest "what the state pushed back on us."

After initially saying they would pay the bill for only three months, the commissioners agreed Tuesday at their meeting to continue to pay for the public defenders for parents in child protection cases as a temporary fix until the end of the next legislative session. The county resolution, however, denies any responsibility for the program, saying that belongs with the state.

"The county does not accept the responsibility for the state's shortfall," said County Administrator Larry Kleindl. But in the interest of children, he said, the county should agree to continue paying the cost.

County Attorney Boyd Beccue has been monitoring the invoices during the first three months and said costs have been reasonable so far. He said one complicated case involving multiple parents could be very costly.

Jay Kieft, director of Family Services, encouraged the board to send letters to local legislators regarding the outcome of the last legislative session to "spur them on to correct a bad legislative decision."

Commissioner Richard Falk called the whole legislative session bad because of what the state "dumped on the taxpayers."

Falk said legislators need to be reminded that "they represent us."

In a later interview, Kleindl said about the only recourse counties have is to "be aware of what's going on" and let legislators know counties are "at the table and watching closely."

In the meantime, Larson said there will be more belt-tightening going on including colder county buildings this winter. Thermostats will be lowered and employees and people who use county services will be asked to "put another layer of clothes on."

In regard to trouble with financial institutions, Larson said the county will have to watch its investments and could consider withdrawing money. "It makes you kind of shiver with what's going on," Larson said. "We have to start looking at covering our own backside."

Carolyn Lange

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

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