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Counties propose cost-saving plans

Jim Mulder of the Association of Minnesota Counties, left, and Beltrami County Commissioner Joe Vene listen to other speakers Tuesday as county officials announce what they call a redesign of government. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

The state can't do business as usual, say county officials who want to take over state maintenance work and pay for it through county-imposed sales taxes.

"County commissioners believe our current government system is unsustainable and needs to be fundamentally transformed," Clay County Commissioner Jon Evert and Association of Minnesota Counties president, said Tuesday.

AMC, at the State Capitol and in a later telephone news conference with outstate reporters, presented a 10-point PACT plan, which they said would create Partnerships, restore Accountability, urge Creativity and offer Transparency.

"Maintaining the status quo will not solve our state's budget problems," Evert said, adding that some processes are 100 years old, "nor will it keep our roads plowed and our libraries open."

AMC's plan could save the state $1 billion each two-year budget cycle, he said.

"This proposal is the beginning of the conversation," said Jim Mulder, AMC executive director. "We believe the old mantra of doing more with less is over. We cannot do more with less. We are going to do less with less but we are proposing to do it better."

Key among the 10 points is having counties take over maintenance of state highways, except for interstate miles. Also, the AMC plan would cut the State Patrol in half, and redeploying the patrol to provide crash reconstruction services, investigation of major crimes and management of state weight standards.

"The Highway Patrol does a great job," Mulder said. "But in many ways, their work is duplicative of what we currently do with the counties and cities."

And one road service can provide better maintenance of state roads than the hodgepodge system now employed, he said.

Cutting the State Patrol in half would save the state $75 million a biennium and moving road work to counties would save the state Department of Transportation $200 million, Mulder said.

A third proposal, to eliminate state aid to counties in the form of County Program Aid, would save $600 million, Mulder said, but counties would want the authority to levy a 0.5 percent sales tax. It would be levied on all 87 counties, but individual counties could "opt-out" of the tax.

Counties are supposed to receive $230 million a year in CPA, but Gov. Tim Pawlenty has continually unallotted from that fund to help balance the state budget.

"The state and the governor are proposing massive cuts in our aid program," Mulder said. "We're left with two choices. Either we cut services or we increase property taxes. Our proposal would offer a third choice: use sales tax dollars to reduce property taxes or to pay for some of the services that we choose as a community to provide."

Later Tuesday, Republican Pawlenty was optimistic that AMC offered ideas, but then shot several of them down.

"Let me thank the counties for coming forward with ideas and suggestions," he said. "They've been helpful partners over the years, at least in academically presenting ideas. I haven't been able to implement them as much as we'd like."

Pawlenty tried consolidating counties in presenting human services, but the idea wasn't embraced by the Legislature.

But he questioned cutting the State Patrol, saying that agency is funded out of the Hi9ghway Trust Fund, so the state general fund would see no benefit. "The spirit in which they are offering these suggestions is reform, but also to try to help the budget."

The result would be to shift state law enforcement funding from the State Patrol to county police. "I think the State Patrol works well; it is a well-regarded organization; it serves the state well," Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty would like to see voluntary consolidation of services where they are replicated. "Movement toward economies of scale and efficiencies would be counties doing things together and getting efficiencies from that, as opposed to taking something that we're already doing together and replicating it 87 times back."

He added that under his budget, CPA is already gone. And Pawlenty said he doesn't favor the county sales tax as the state would be levying it for the counties.

There isn't even agreement among all commissioners over the PACT proposal. Washington County Commissioner Gary Kriesel fumed Tuesday morning that he was not given information about the proposal until Monday, but like other commissioners was asked by the organization to promote the plan.

At the same time, Kriesel said, the organization asked that commissioners keep quiet if they object to the plan.

"The 10 PACT items will likely be seen as controversial to some," said Evert, "and thought-provoking by others. Even among county commissioners this PACT is not universally accepted, nor does it have 100 percent support."

Some county officials said the association proposal was not ready for prime time.

Beltrami County Commissioner Joe Vene said at the Capitol that it needs much more discussion.

"It is going to take some time," he said.

Evert did not disagree: "We want to start the conversation."

Vene said the patrol proposal, for instance, would upset troopers. "You think that your eradiation is imminent."

Beltrami County is in the end stages of implementing its own performance-based system, Strategy Aligned Management.

"We totally agree and support what Beltrami County is doing," Mulder said. "The reason it (performance-based outcomes) doesn't show up in these proposals is because last year during session we passed the Service Delivery Authority Act. We are in the midst of setting performance standards for the 25 or 26 social services programs."

One of the 10 PACT proposals does pin incentives to outcomes. It would move statewide a pilot program for chemical dependency response to allow counties to keep surplus funds if outcomes are met, and absorb costs if not.

Other PACT ideas include:

- A number of courts reform, including judicial reciprocity for arraignments and other early court proceedings, expand court jurisdiction to prosecute crimes and allow for multiple prosecutions involving the same defendants, allow and expand the use of interactive television technology in court proceedings.

- Adopt a uniform statewide planning and zoning law that combines best portions of city/town planning and zoning statutes and county planning and zoning statutes.

- Suspend all county maintenance of efforts for three years, place a moratorium on new state mandates and enact a five-year sunset review on all existing mandates.

- Allow counties a streamlined process to adopt home rule charters, which would allow them to perform any duty unless expressly prohibited by the state. Currently, counties can do only what the state permits them to do.

Forum Communications Co. reporters Don Davis and Scott Wente contributed to this story.