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Auditor-treasurer merger to be studied

With Becker County Auditor Keith Brekken planning to retire later this year, a committee will study whether to combine the county offices of auditor and treasurer.

"I'd like us to take a hard look at all our land-use positions in the county," said Board Chairwoman Karen Mulari. "I'd like us to streamline government so we don't have to grow government as our population grows."

Commissioner Larry Knutson agreed.

"The opportunity is here to combine those offices. If we pass that up, it will be a long time before the opportunity comes again."

Commissioner Harry Salminen said he agrees with the idea of combining the two offices, and said he talked to a former county auditor who agrees the time has come -- but Salminen would prefer to make the position appointive rather than elective.

"If it's elected, no qualifications are necessary except whether you're popular or not -- as chief financial officer for the county, you've got to have some qualifications other than whether you can get votes," Salminen said. "Unless it's appointive, I'd like it to remain as it is."

Commissioner Barry Nelson disagreed. He supports the idea of combining the two offices, and is fine with making it an elective post. He has talked to board members in other counties that have made the switch, and they have no complaints, he said.

Brekken said earlier that 53 of the state's 87 counties have combined the positions.

Commissioner Bob Bristlin said he also supports consolidation, whether it be elective or appointive, though he wouldn't mind seeing the position made appointive.

"I'm sure Mr. (County Treasurer Ryan) Tangen would rather be appointed than have to keep running for office every four years," Bristlin said.

With a county administrator to provide supervision, things run more smoothly with department heads that are appointed rather than elected, he added.

Because of political realities and timeline pressure, any consolidated position must be elective, Knutson said.

Mulari agreed, saying that if the position were appointed, the board would choose someone with a strong financial background, and voters will do the same.

"I would hope the citizens of Becker County are smart enough to elect someone with the qualifications to do the job," she said.

The board charged Mulari, Nelson and County Administrator Brian Berg with naming the rest of a committee to look into the feasibility of combining the auditor and treasurer jobs.

At the board meeting Tuesday, County Surveyor Roy Smith said it is time to look at making his position and other less prominent positions, like county coroner, appointive rather than elective.

At Tangen's suggestion, because of deadline pressure, the committee will focus on the auditor-treasurer position for the upcoming election, then take a look at other county positions.

Filing for county offices opens July 4, and any board action to consolidate must be completed at least 30 days before that to allow for a reverse referendum if enough eligible voters sign a petition.

"It is very time sensitive," Berg agreed. "I talked to the county attorney about this yesterday."

The county board has the authority to consolidate the positions, though the action must be approved by at least 80 percent of commissioners (a 4-1 or 5-0 vote, in other words) and the position must remain elected, Berg said earlier.

The board action could be put to a public referendum if 10 percent or more of county voters in the last election sign a petition asking for that.

The board does not have authority to make the position appointive. That requires special legislative permission or a referendum vote, Berg said.