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AMC plan blindsides outstate counties -- Beltrami backs away

Beltrami County commissioners quickly backed away Tuesday from an Association of Minnesota Counties' government redesign plan that they said was ill-conceived.

AMC a week ago held news conferences and forwarded to the Legislature its 10-point government redesign plan that it said would save the state $645 million a biennium.

It calls for reducing the Minnesota State Patrol by 50 percent and having county law enforcement patrol the roads, having counties take over maintenance of state highways, eliminating state County Program Aid but allowing counties to levy a half-cent sales tax and imposing a statewide uniform planning and zoning law.

"It is not redesign, it is politics," said County Administrator Tony Murphy, as the County Board discussed the AMC plan during its Tuesday work session. "It calls for the typical horse-trading that goes on in politics. It's politics on how to save government."

Commissioner Jim Lucachick said the plan has no defined benefits for taxpayers, only savings to state government. "Are we going to be more efficient and save the taxpayers money?"

Lucachick suggested, and board members agreed, to all sign a letter to local lawmakers stating Beltrami County in no way supports any of AMC's 10 points, as the AMC already has testified to several legislative committees.

The letter will be hand-delivered next Tuesday by County Board Chairman Jack Frost during Bemidji Day at the Capitol. Lawmakers were trying to solve a $1.2 billion budget shortfall, but new figures Tuesday put the shortfall at $994 million.

"It came to us at a blind side," Frost said of the AMC policy. "This redesign plan came as a surprise."

AMC has been working for two years on a redesign plan, which followed closely Beltrami County's Strategy Aligned Management, Murphy said. Both were based on performance-based outcomes.

The new redesign plan is nothing like the former draft plan, Murphy said.

Commissioner Joe Vene, an AMC Board member, said the board was presented the 10-point plan at its meeting Feb. 19 and a vote taken then.

"My guess is it came as the brainchild from AMC's futures committee," Vene said. "It looked good as something to study, but not to inject into the legislative process before the counties had time to digest it."

The meeting was held over interactive television, and Vene said the audio was terrible and the video quality even worse, making it hard to understand a presentation of the 10-point plan.

Vene's motion to table the plan failed, and he voted against the plan which passed the AMC Board. It was prepared for a news conference on Feb. 23, which Vene attended, with many commissioners getting first notice then.

Adding to the mystery is the next-day resignation of AMC Executive Director Jim Mulder, saying he was going to finish his doctorate.

"At age 59, and he's going after a Ph.D.?" Murphy noted.

"It's a huge mandate switch," Frost said of suggestions that counties take over some services, like highway road maintenance. "A sales tax wouldn't cover half of what we will provide under this plan."

Frost also said the plan appears to favor metro counties over rural counties.

"Some counties are so upset over this that they are considering whether to remain with AMC," Vene said.

Commissioner Jim Heltzer said the county should consider AMC membership when it's time to frame the 2011 budget.

"Don't get stopped by a state trooper," Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks, a retired state trooper, quipped to fellow commissioners.