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Association of Minnesota Counties pushes for legislative changes

The Association of Minnesota Counties isn't happy.

To right that, the organization is working to raise awareness and hopefully make some changes in legislation. Three years ago, the group redesigned the way state business should run. That attempt failed.

"I'll be honest, it was a complete failure," Executive Director Jim Mulder said.

They've regrouped this time around and are on a mission to visit rural communities throughout the state to discuss their proposals on what needs to be done -- a "what are we going to do when we grow up type thing," he said.

Mulder pointed to three areas he said needs change. First is governance, and the confusion as to who does what.

"It takes an astute citizen to know who is in charge of what and why," he said.

Second is transparency. "If the public loses faith in what we do, we can't do it," he pointed out.

And third is outcomes and flexibility. There are regulations and the state tells counties what to do, but there is no follow-up as to the outcome of the situation -- "why are we doing things," he said.

As an example, Clay County Commissioner Jon Evert, Moorhead, said the maintenance of effort on mental health has been a real issue in his county.

Last year the county built a mental health facility and needed some extra money from the state -- an extra $400,000, to be exact. This year though, with the facility in its second year, there was no need for the extra money. Because of the maintenance of effort policy, however, the state forced the county to continue to spend that $400,000, even though it wasn't needed.

"They need to measure the inputs, then the outputs," Evert said. "It's very inefficient."

Just looking at the range of counties throughout the state, Mulder said each county has different needs -- it's "different worlds" between Lake of the Woods County and Hennepin County.

Along with measures from changes in state patrol dispatch to releasing short-term offenders early into probation, the association believes another solution is "cities, counties and schools need to do a better job, too," Mulder said.

A combination of services would help. Evert said in Clay County, the jails are at maximum capacity thanks to state inmates they are housing. But because of those state inmates, the county must bus out prisoners on a regular basis.

"It's crazy, crazy figures they're looking at," he said.

Becker County Commissioner Barry Nelson spoke up, noting that this county has a problem with its library monies because of the maintenance of effort requirement as well.

"It's hard for the library to request money, then the state comes in and says you have to have more," he said.

He added that sometimes people don't realize the amount of money given to some entities is because of state requirements, and it's not necessarily the county's choice.

Mulder added that it should be local community boards making those decisions and not the bureaucrats in St. Paul.

While these have always been concerns for the AMC, he said the budget crisis has certainly pushed it forward.

Evert said unfortunately, some programs may have to be cut to sustain other, more used programs.

"I don't want to pass it onto the taxpayers (through levies) during this economic time," Nelson agreed.

Although it has been and will likely continue to be, Mulder said the AMC is up for the challenge and getting other organizations together -- like the League of Minnesota Cities, the board of Education and chambers of commerce, for example -- to make a difference at the state level.

"We've been in the turf wars for too long," Evert said.

"It's about our community and that we're doing well," Mulder added.

"It's harder to challenge people to change when things are going well. Well, there's plenty of time to change now," Nelson said. "The state needs to take a look at it like the county does -- make changes that help, not just cuts."