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Beltrami County gears up to reform government

Beltrami County government needs long-term reform, not just a balanced budget, commissioners said Tuesday.

"My frustration ... is that the state talks of spending priorities but wants to take 7.9 percent across the board," County Board Chairman Jim Lucachick said. "We can do a budget in 15 minutes that way."

But commissioners want to move county government into a future that is sustainable, meaning smaller and with more partnerships. And while they must deal now with 2009 cuts as the Legislature adjourns in two weeks, they also want to ponder the county's 2010 and 2011 budgets with reform in mind.

"The easy way out would be to cut 7.9 percent and go away" Lucachick said. "I want to look at what's important -- if an entire program is eliminated, so be it."

At Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks suggestion, and approved in a formal unanimous vote, commissioners will meet the second and fourth Tuesdays at 8 a.m. to noon just on budget issues. The board regularly meets the first and third Tuesdays, which will continue.

The new schedule will start next Tuesday as commissioners start discussing desired outcomes for county services, a move suggested by Commissioner Jim Heltzer.

County Administrator Tony Murphy last month presented a 14-page budget strategies paper that outlined possible changes commissioners could consider this year, in 2010 and in the long term. Not intended to be staff recommendations, Murphy said the list of more than 100 changes could serve as a starting point for discussing budget priorities.

The list includes immediate changes such as not filling vacant positions in county departments to selecting a cheaper grade of paper for county highway maps. The list for 2010 and 2011 includes reducing the level of summer maintenance to gravel roads, suggest unpaid furloughs, combine county sheriff and Bemidji police investigative units, or eliminate or phase out home care services.

"I'd rather look at what outcomes we want rather than this grocery list," Heltzer said. "We need to start with a list of outcomes and prioritize those most important. We'll never have unlimited resources for all outcomes."

Heltzer said he took page 8 of Murphy's document "and I saw 12 items that I didn't know what they mean, 19 items that I agreed with and none that I didn't disagree with. But we need to put these into outcomes."

One item on the list, to continue developing the county's parks and trails system, is an outcome, Heltzer said. But he said others should include battling homelessness, providing affordable housing, seeking better relationships "with native Americans and the rest of us who live on this planet," and to "create living-wage jobs in the county available for all residents of the county."

Lucachick agreed, saying commissioner need to focus on outcomes that make sure Beltrami County residents "are fed, have a roof over their heads and, when they wake up in the morning, a job that makes it worth while to get up in the morning."

Department heads have already held long discussions on outcomes, Murphy said, but agreed that should be a starting point for commissioners.

"The lesson we learn from legislators is that they will do themath this year, and next year, and keep chasing the tail," Murphy said. "It's a missed opportunity for priorities and outcomes. I am less concerned about getting a budget done and a budget balanced than missing out on an opportunity to do business in a different way and in a sustainable way.

"We will be healthier because of that discussion," he added.

"We need to find the basic services that maintain some semblance of a quality of life," said Commissioner Joe Vene.

Commissioners, at their regular meeting, also agreed to solicit requests for qualifications from survey firms to do remonumentation of survey corners in Bemidji and Turtle River townships.

GIS Director Jane Mueller proposed four townships for the project, saying there was only funding to do remonumentation of two. Also suggested were Eland and Southern Waskish townships. All four are near or adjacent to Shotley or Frohn townships, the two pilot townships done last year.

Murphy warned commissioners about doing two urban growth-oriented townships while leaving out more remote townships, as the latter may find few if any bidders when they come up.

Commissioners, however, said that Bemidji Township faces annexation issues and Turtle River Township is seeing potential growth, and should have remonumentation done to aid developments. They, however, as part of the motion declared that Eland and South Waskish would be next in line when more funding is available.

"When the economy turns around, we should bond and do all of them," Fairbanks said. "We'll keep that in mind."