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Otter Tail County Commissioner pushes for fewer Minn. counties

Ottertail County Commissioner Doug Huebsch says it may be necessary to reduce the number of counties to between 30 and 35.

WILLMAR -- When county commissioners from the state's 87 counties gather next week in Minneapolis for the annual Association of Minnesota Counties conference, they will hear a pitch to reduce the number of counties in the state by more than half.

The proposal isn't coming from state legislators but from a county commissioner who said steps should be taken immediately to start erasing county lines to reduce the number of counties to between 30 and 35.

Otter Tail County Commissioner Doug Huebsch, who spoke last week to a Willmar Rotary Club, said he knows he's opening up a "can of worms" by talking about the financial necessities of merging counties but said it's imperative to the state's future.

"It can't keep going the way it's going. It's impossible," he said.

Huebsch said there is "no rhyme or reason" to where the current county lines are drawn other than past politics. "We're smarter than that now," he said.

Even though some counties are "too small to function" with a population of a couple thousand, they are trying to provide the same type of services with the same number of departments as larger counties with a population of a couple hundred thousand, Huebsch said.

He has been part of a reorganization process in his home county. Since 2008, Otter Tail County started a four-year transition to reduce the number of county departments from 17 to five, reduce the number of job classes and reduce the number of employees -- mostly through retirements.

So far there have been no complaints from constituents that fewer departments have resulted in reduced services.

Savings to the county won't be seen for another two years, he said.

Otter Tail County is also forming working relationships with three neighboring counties to provide shared services. The four counties have already merged their solid waste management services, and after realizing that three of the counties are able to provide public health services for about $9 per capita and it costs the fourth about $42, there are now efforts under way to share those services.

Blurring county lines allows employees with specialized skills to provide services in a more cost-effective manner than each county trying to provide that service on its own, Huebsch said. He also encourages cities and counties to work together to reduce duplication of services.

Community pride and emotional objections to merging government entities need to be weighed against the value of providing education, roads and other infrastructure that's needed to make the state vibrant, he said.

"Pick your battle," he said. "Everything has a price tag."

Carolyn Lange

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

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