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Beltrami County Board begins budget work

Beltrami County Administrator Tony Murphy, top right corner, leads a discussion of outcome-based budget-setting Tuesday morning with county commissioners and department heads. Work is beginning to prioritize county services by desired outcomes for adjusting the 2009 budget and setting 2010 and 2011 budgets. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

Beltrami County commissioners, gathered with county department heads, started Tuesday a new budget process that focuses on outcomes.

With the Minnesota Legislature still in session, commissioners know that state aids will be reduced for 2009, meaning immediate budget adjustments.

But commissioners also want to become more thoughtful about county government in setting a 2010 budget and in scoping out 2011. They know that state funding will be declining, and so they say should county government get smaller.

"The reality is we have to have a balanced budget," County Administrator Tony Murphy told commissioners and most county department heads who gathered Tuesday morning for the first of what will be at least twice monthly budget sessions. "But we want to make those decisions in the context of an outcome-managed framework. It is on a continuum, with some of this we've got to do because we need to get smaller and more focused."

Murphy spent the first hour going over the county's strategic-aligned management system and then participants held a free-for-all discussion of what to do next. Murphy earlier provided a 14-page budget strategy document that includes more than 100 separate suggestions for change.

Tuesday, commissioners heard of five proposed strategic themes under which outcomes were or will be determined. They include Expanding Opportunity, Safe Neighborhoods, Caring Community, Resource Excellence and Results-Oriented Government.

For the next meeting, Commissioner Jim Heltzer said he'd like to take the 100-point "grocery list" and place them as appropriate under the five themes. Murphy said he would attempt to place dollar amounts for each change offered for 2009, and hoped that the county group go through time item by item.

When asked by Commissioner Jack Frost, Murphy outlined what he said would be "budget busters" for the county.

- Multi-generational dependence on public assistance and related services.

There are a small number of county families that account for a large portion of the county welfare budget, Murphy said, many seeing many generations on welfare.

"They use a variety of social and human services and we are devoting an inordinate amount of our resources to this group," he said.

The basic outcome would be to get them off welfare, with a measure of that outcome being the number of repeat users of the Minnesota Family Investment Program and the percent of children on MFIP that graduate from high school on time. Also, the number of unwed mother pregnancies.

Many of the outcomes cross county department borders, he said, as welfare program outcomes for kids can also affect crime, as early intervention can prevent future county budget problems through social services and corrections.

Murphy talked about creating partnerships with the county's school districts to instill public awareness and support for higher graduate rates, proper individual education plans and in preparing the skill sets necessary for today's workforce.

"We don't want to give the impression we want to take over school functions, but it does take a community to make students successful," he said. "We need to engage kids with a mentor or a coach to expand their horizons."

Curbing generational use of public assistance could potentially free up a lot of dollars for other county priorities, Murphy said.

- Child welfare.

High out-of-home placement costs still plague Beltrami County even though some legislative relief has been made available in previous years. Most comes from then Red Lake Reservations, where the county must pay for child placement costs even though the reservation is non-taxable land.

It is hoped the Red Lake Reservation can join a demonstration project which has Leech Lake and White Earth reservations dealing directly with the state of Minnesota in public assistance costs.

- Jails.

"We've allowed ourselves to play along with a philosophy that if we are afraid of someone or mad at someone they go to jail," Murphy said. "We must find a better way for non-violent offenders."

An objective under Safe Neighborhoods is to maintain and improve the safety of people and property, with a measure being the number of crimes.

An internal objective is to engage partners and citizens to realize safe neighborhoods, which means connections with the judiciary, a separate branch of government that has the power to sentence individuals to jail or to diversion programs.

"We need to engage the judiciary in more effective sentencing," said Commissioner Joe Vene.

"That will be challenging as we are working with an outside-the-box partner to effect change," said County Attorney Tim Faver.

That why commissioner input is needed, Murphy said. County staff has worked many hours to develop the proposed outcomes, with commissioner input, but the elected officials must help effect suggested changes.

"This is where we need the County Board to negotiate," he said.

The idea of strategic-aligned management "flips our business emphasis upside down," he said. "A balanced scorecard approach allows us to make investment strategies."

Whether it be the County Development Fund for economic development or contracting welfare services with non-profit providers, all have to fulfill an outcome that the public desires, Murphy said.

He said he's met with social services non-providers who are excited about an outcome-based system. "We would not be paying non-profit providers to provide services but rather we'd pay providers for outcomes."

Murphy said the direction doesn't mean the county will take "a mean-spirited approach and throw people off our rolls, but now to engage them to become successful,"

Board Chairman Jim Lucachick, who participated by conference call from North Dakota, said while long-term budget discussions will be fruitful, participants must keep in mind a goal to make government smaller.

"The question is should government provide it or would it be better provided by the private sector," he said. "There are things the private sector has done a lot better. Changing to that would be a really big decision maker."

Commissioners said they would continue to seek input from the public as to what county government should provide and what they can afford.

"We haven't done a very good job of outreach," Frost said.

Commissioners plan to hold budget sessions at 8 a.m. on the second and fourth Tuesdays.