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Letter to the editor: Dumping on counties is no way to run a government

Lately, it has become an annual ritual. After three or four months of agonizing over the reality of a serious budget deficit, Minnesota lawmakers and the Governor spring into action, and while most of us are sleeping (or not allowed in the room), the budget is "balanced."

The next day pats-on-the-back are all-around and an "isn't it wonderful" feeling of relief permeates the Capitol corridors.

I've got news for them. Back home we don't celebrate the fact that those responsible for balancing the state's budget continue to heap piles of their "shortfalls" on Minnesota's counties and at the same time tie our hands by limiting our ability to pay for what are truly state functions.  

The most recent examples of the state's abuse of power came when, without warning, counties were strapped with financing two important, but clearly, state functions: housing short term state offenders in county jails and paying for some public defender services.

It was in 2003 that Governor Pawlenty signed a bill that made counties responsible for housing in county jails the so-called "short term offenders." The cost to counties to house one of these prisoners is over $55 a day. But don't you know that this year, in an effort to "balance" the state's budget, the Legislature reduced the state's reimbursement to counties for each prisoner to less than $10 per day. Little surprise as to where the $45 difference must come from: Either local property taxes, or because the state now limits our ability to levy taxes, more likely from cutting an essential county service such as road maintenance.

Another example is that as a result of the legislature's cut in funding to public defenders, counties now have to pick up the cost of funding legal services for adults in child protection cases. That nifty little shift of responsibility will cost property taxpayers $5-6 million in addition to another $6 million for housing state prisoners.

As a county commissioner, I take my oath of office seriously and vote for a budget that respects the delicate balance between the needs of the community and its ability to fund services to meet those needs. It seems to me that we should expect the same from our state leaders.

These are core state functions and for them to not face up to their constitutional duties with integrity and transparency is no way to run a government. Minnesota is unquestionably facing some tough times, but county leaders are both qualified and prepared to work with the governor and the legislature to meet those challenges. -- Paul Wilson, president, Association of Minnesota Counties, county commissioner for Olmsted County

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