Reforms proposals by Association of Minnesota Counties would save state money by shifting duties to local governments
A sweeping set of reforms that would shift many state duties onto counties was unveiled this week, potentially saving the state $945 million over two years.
But the trial balloon is going over like a lead zeppelin locally. County officials wonder if it's simply another unfunded mandate, one delivered in a differently wrapped package.
Where will the money come from, they're wondering.
The proposals were "very very poorly thought out," said Hubbard County board chair Lyle Robinson "It absolutely bothered a lot of people."
"I heard nothing about it," Hubbard County Sheriff Frank Homer said. "Yeah, it did take us by surprise."
Under the proposal authored by the Association of Minnesota Counties, local governments would assume many State Patrol duties, cutting that force in half; counties would take over state highway maintenance chores, counties could pass a .5 percent sales tax and would be instrumental in reforming the court and jail systems, absorbing inmates and court workloads.
The "bold redesign plan for Minnesota" may not have a snowball's chance in hell at the Legislature, but the proposals have already sparked a spirited discussion in all 87 counties affected.
"This set of proposals is the first step in unleashing the shackles of mandates and rules and allows local communities to set service priorities and encourage innovation," the AMC indicated.
Sit down and shut up?
But at the plan's rollout, county officials who were not in on the planning stages, were asked to promote it nonetheless, or bite their tongues if they disagreed with it, AMC communiqués indicated.
"If you are strongly opposed, we are asking you to hold your opposition in abeyance until AMC Policy Committees meet in March," said an introductory letter from AMC President Jon Evert and Executive Director James Mulder that accompanied the proposals.
It was that last statement that rankled county officials. Mulder resigned from his position Thursday in a move he said had "absolutely nothing" to do with the reaction. He said his resignation after 21 years has been planned for a while, but did admit the timing "was unfortunate."
He said he's pursuing a doctorate degree.
"There were a couple things that kind of griped me and one was that if you're opposed to it don't say anything," Robinson said. "That's their mentality."
"Some of the counties are just throwing darts at AMC right now," said Hubbard County Coordinator Jack Paul. "They're saying, 'We didn't participate in this.'"
Show us the money
Paul said locally, officials are still trying to devour the 10-point plan, which has some innovative ideas. But he and Robinson said heard officials in other counties such as Beltrami, are livid.
"This was to get everybody's attention and they certainly got everybody's attention because some are going to like it and some are not going to like it," Paul said, adding he's heard talk that some counties were considering withdrawing from the AMC. He thinks such drastic talk is simply posturing.
"It's just to get the discussion going," he said of the plan. "The Legislature and governor have been after this, wanting ideas."
For Hubbard County Engineer Dave Olsonawski, much of the proposal was old news.
"They always try and do this stuff, every five to ten years," he said. "It was about 15 years ago they tried to get us to take all the trunk highways over or at least the higher numbered ones and that kind of fell to deaf ears because how are we going to pay for 'em? It's like passing the buck."
Olsonawski said he couldn't estimate what maintaining the state highways would cost the county in extra personnel and equipment.
"I'll contact MNDOT and see if they can give me some numbers," he said. "At least it would give me a ballpark figure as to whether it's $1 million or $2 million," he added. "I'm not even going to guess what they spend in a year on maintenance."
Homer looked at the patrol idea along with the plan to create a coordinated jail system in the state. He's wondering where the funding will come from.
The Sheriff's Department would have to assume major patrol duties for five highways in the state, U.S. Highway 2 and State Highways 71, 64, 200 and 71, Homer said.
He would have to nearly double his current staff to do that.
"You're looking at, well let's just throw a number out there, at a minimum in daytime, an additional day shift deputy and at a minimum, one to 1.5 (more personnel) at night, especially at peak times, you might even be pushing to two at night" he said.
Summer tourist season would really tax the department's patrol duties, he added.
"I think we forget that sometimes we're limited in our manpower and the troopers are backing our guys up on our criminal calls, like on a domestic sometimes when we have one car available," Homer said.
Reshuffling the deck
The road maintenance proposals especially trouble Robinson.
"I don't know how it saves anything because that comes out of gas tax anyway and they couldn't take the money out of gas tax," he said. "The state couldn't take the gas tax money and move it anywhere else. It's dedicated to gas tax."
Mulder agrees, saying the current split may have to be reapportioned.
Under the current distribution, 62 percent of gas taxes go for state trunk highways, 29 percent for county state-aid highways, and 9 percent for municipal state-aid streets. The other major source of funding is local property taxes.
"It's not something we can just absorb without being paid," Robinson said.
But Mulder maintains counties could do with less.
"Is there the ability to save by coordinating more, sharing resources better, by having the coordinated snow plow and if it is what are those savings and how would you have to make sure the money was divided and if it made sense?" he asked.
Redrawing snowplow routes could save money and eliminate redundancy, he maintains.
Ambushed by the plan
Robinson sits on an environmental committee of the AMC, which has numerous committees to address all facets of Minnesota services.
"None of these things went through any of the committees. None of 'em," he fumed.
"To be successful it has to start with grass roots, it doesn't come from the top down," he said.
"I think some people have misconstrued a little bit about what that document is," Mulder said. "They are proposals and ideas in areas that could be redesigned with estimated savings. It's the first step of a process. Every one of those (proposals) have questions that need to be answered."
Metro versus out state
Robinson said the plan has been warmly received by the metro counties, which stand to gain at rural counties' expense.
Homer said the cuts might make more sense in the metro area, but not here.
"When you start talking law enforcement here, we're scratching the surface as is," he said.
"They're going to give us additional duties, boy, and expect the county to counter with more money out of our pockets to supplement what the troopers are taking, ooh boy. That would be tough."
Robinson has asked each Hubbard County department affected to prepare an estimate of costs, even though the proverbial snowball's chance may never come.
But in case it does, he wants to make sure Hubbard County isn't stuck with the tab to plow it.