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AMC proposal still rankling county board

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A proposal to streamline state government by shifting responsibilities for many functions to counties continues to roil Hubbard County commissioners.

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The 10-point plan was proposed last month by the Association of Minnesota Counties and came as a surprise to counties in the region, which reacted angrily to suggestions counties could take over road maintenance of state highways, state patrol duties of those same highways and localize functions such as the courts and jails to save the state $945 million.

"The AMC just stabbed us in the back," said commissioner Dick Devine at the board's March 3 meeting. "We need to send a communication indicating our displeasure," he urged the board. "It was not acceptable to our leadership."

AMC's Executive Director James Mulder tendered his resignation shortly after the proposal created a furor among rural counties. He insisted it had nothing to do with the uproar. He said he was returning to graduate school at age 59.

Hubbard County board members were skeptical.

"If he hadn't resigned I think we should have helped him," said Devine.

"You mark my words, election time, he'll show up," said board chair Lyle Robinson, suggesting Mulder may be angling for a lieutenant governor spot on a Republican ticket.

If so, his support in outstate Minnesota has significantly eroded as counties, including Hubbard and Beltrami, mull whether they should drop out of AMC. Hubbard County commissioners question whether the organization has their best interests in mind.

"I would think probably not (dropping the county's membership) but they need to know we're unhappy with the way they're doing business, Robinson said.

And he's adamant he doesn't want any past AMC officials selecting the new executive director.

"I would rather look to the future, not the past, because the last thing you need is the good old boys doing it," he said.

Last month Robinson asked county departments to prepare estimates as to how much the proposals would cost, but to date, most department heads say they're just speculating. But that speculation runs in the millions of dollars, and Robinson continually questions how any roadwork will be accomplished without the funding. Legislative changes would have to be made to reallocate gas taxes, he maintains.

"If we have time enough to do their roads, they have time enough to do ours," Robinson suggested at that March 3 meeting.

One indicator of the costs came from the Minnesota Department of Corrections. Region 2 supervisor Marc Bloomquist estimated March 17 it will cost in excess of $400,000 to localize parole and probation services, having four agents and clerical staff supervise felons and sex offenders.

The county paid 50 percent of the costs of two agents, estimated at $24,000+ during the six months between July 1-Dec. 31, 2009. Localizing the services would quadruple the costs annually, Bloomquist estimated.

Social Services Director Daryl Bessler was trying to put his finger on the chemical dependency proposal in the redesign, hoping it would include access to a consolidated fund for case management costs not available to counties now.

"Counties would get better results if the state would open the fund," he said.

He understood the rationale of the "community corrections model" that would make probation officers county staff.

"You want them to be accountable for the placements they make," Bessler theorized. "You pay for those placements through your levy," he told the board.

"It's just sort of shocking the people working for us are making those decisions," Robinson said. "They think about savings to the state and not thinking about what it will do to the counties."

County coordinator Jack Paul said the proposals were floated to begin statewide discussions about streamlining government. Commissioners replied it sparked the discussion, but probably didn't head in the direction the AMC envisioned.

"This is the same proposal as in 1973 and 55 counties chose not to support it," Bloomquist said.

Probation agent Joe Peterson said localizing probation services wouldn't change anything in the way the office operates.

"We all live here, we're all invested in the communities we live in," he said. "We want to see recidivism reduced."

Robinson queried the Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust last week to see if Hubbard County needed to be an AMC member to obtain the trust's insurance policies. He was told it did not.

He said later his real goal was to get the risk management consultant to carry the message back to AMC. Hubbard County was incensed at the way the plan unfolded. Counties weren't consulted before the unveiling and told to keep any negative comments to themselves.

You know what AMC stands for?" Robinson asked. "Association of Metro Counties.

"Primarily we're trying to send them a message they'd better not try to raise our dues, in fact they better be ready to take a cut because everybody's cutting," Robinson said. "And they sure can't say they're doing excessive work on our behalf."

Commissioner Don Carlson will be meeting with the AMC later this week. He's been asked by Robinson to carry the county's message that decentralizing government on the backs of counties won't fly in the northland.

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Sarah Smith
Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.
(218) 732-3364
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