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Local governments want more flexibility, report looks at Minnesota potential

Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, talks Monday about legislative efforts to give local governments more flexibility. On the right is Beltrami County Commissioner Joe Vene. Don Davis | Bemidji Pioneer

ST. PAUL - Local government officials, including those from the Bemidji area, say they could help citizens better if the state got off their back.

State and local officials' relationship has eroded, according to Executive Director Jim Miller of the League of Minnesota Cities. "The relationship needs mending."

The league, Association of Minnesota Counties and Minnesota School Boards Association announced their intentions to work together in seeking some legislative relief from state mandates. The only specific legislation they backed was a bill senators overwhelmingly passed last year to establish a limited number of pilot projects that would give county governments more freedom.

Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, sponsored the bill last year and said on Monday that it would provide better accountability for county governments and allow for local innovation and collaboration. The bill got lost amid last year's budget debate, and backers expect it to pass this year.

An example of what needs to change came from southeastern Minnesota, where a dozen counties want to cooperate on a joint human services program. However, at nearly every step forward, some state rule or law becomes an obstacle.

C. Scott Cooper of the Bush Foundation said his organization is funding a study to see how those counties can work together, and will provide some funding to begin the cooperative effort as an example to other counties.

Beltrami County Commissioner Joe Vene said that programs often are set up to match county lines, but while borders "identify us, they do not define us."

Kevin Donovan of the Mahtomedi school board and member of the state school board group said he hopes the Carlson bill can be put on steroids and used to open the door for other governmental bodies to share resources and work closer together.

"What we have learned from local government leaders is that there is a genuine enthusiasm for collaboration and rethinking how we deliver public services," Bush Foundation Board Chair Jan Malcolm said. "We believe the best solutions will come from local people armed with solid information and an appetite for seeking new partnerships. If our government leaders are thoughtful about redesign, both improving public service outcomes and saving taxpayer dollars are within reach."

On Monday, the groups released a joint report, "Focus on Outcomes: Redesigning Minnesota's Local Governments," which chronicles the redesign ideas being implemented statewide, barriers local governments face in redesign and opportunities to encourage greater cross-sector collaboration among Minnesota's state and local governments.

The report is based on perspectives of more than 400 city, county and school district leaders who met during a series of six Local Government Innovation Forums last November in Bemidji, Rochester, Hibbing, Marshall, Waite Park and Eagan.

As part of the initiative, two videos also were created.

"If we had a chance to build this all over again, what would it look like?" Carlson said in one video. "How do we deliver services that folks expect? And how do we do that in a way that is cost effective and makes sense and utilize resources together."

In the same video, Vene said the forums "created an opportunity for us to look at problems in the future."

Redesigning Minnesota's Future

Why Redesign?