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Becker County again hurt by state buck-passing

It's enough to give a county commissioner a headache: State budget cuts have once again fallen on Becker County's head.

Faced with a $3.8 million deficit for fiscal year 2009 (which started this month), the State Board of Public Defense decided to quit providing public defenders for parents accused of seriously mistreating their children.

"Public defenders claim they are not statutorily mandated to represent parents in Child in Need of Protection or Services (CHIPS) and Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) cases, even though they have been doing so for many years," states a letter to counties from State Court Administrator Sue Dosal.

As of Tuesday, parents in those cases don't qualify for public defenders -- although children age 10 and over still do.

That will slow down such cases to a crawl (the judge will be required "to deal directly with parents, who are often challenged by mental health disability and/or chemical health dependency," Dosal wrote).

Such cases are already "among the most difficult" faced by judges, and defense attorneys are essential, so judges are going to appoint them, and they are going to order counties to pay the bill.

David Stowman, a Detroit Lakes attorney who sits on the State Board of Public Defense, said budget cuts left the board with no choice. Public defenders already juggle large caseloads, and the whole court system would bog down if a significant number of public defenders were laid off, he said.

At the same time the state made the cuts, it also capped county levy increases to 3.9 percent per year.

To commissioners like Harry Salminen of rural Detroit Lakes, that's adding insult to injury. The county sets its budget based on the calendar year, from January to January, so it doesn't have money set aside to pay for public defenders from now until the end of the year, he said. And the cost could be $60,000-$80,000 or more per year, since Becker County serves a high-need population.

County Administrator Brian Berg said these things make planning difficult.

"Now you see how they (party leaders and the governor) do their job -- they eliminate funding and kick it back on the counties," he said.

State mandates are galling because they often fly in the face of common sense.

The county levy for the Lake Agassiz Regional Library system (the Detroit Lakes Public Library is a member) increased by $64,000 last year, to a total of $283,000, because funding is mandated based on tax base growth.

Nothing against the library, but in a time when road construction costs are sky high, the county could use some flexibility in its spending.

The Legislature should approve that next time it passes levy caps and mandatory spending.