Time to overhaul county, state governments

Published 9:02 am Monday, December 15, 2008

County governments face numerous obstacles in providing efficient, effective government services. While demographics and populations have changed across the state in the past two decades, the structure and requirements of government have remained the same.

Minnesota is growing more diverse as counties like Steele and Kandiyohi continue to attract new residents from Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia. In addition, the state’s population continues to shift from west to east, and from rural to urban. With these and other changing conditions, we cannot continue to deliver services in a 1980s model of government.

In addition to our outdated government model, the Legislature’s decision to shift state responsibilities to county governments has tied the hands of elected county commissioners when it comes to making local decisions. Besides of the lack of establishing clear state priorities, many of these responsibilities are a one-size-fits-all solution to complex problems. Too often, these responsibilities, or maintenance of effort (MOEs), have become unfunded or underfunded mandates.

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Examples of MOEs include: counties being forced to take over state responsibilities, such as housing state felons in county jails, or to maintain unsustainable funding for programs regardless of local demand for the service, such as funding for libraries or mental health services.

MOEs put county governments into a box. With new mandates from St. Paul, including capping local levies, and a service delivery model that’s outdated, the county/state relationship is on the verge of collapse. Much needs to change.

That’s why the Association of Minnesota Counties is asking legislators to put efficiency, transparency, flexibility and innovation back into government. Our wide-ranging examination of county government and its relationship with the state will allow Minnesota to have 87 individual laboratories to experiment and find new ways to deliver services. An overhaul of government should also help reduce the demand for higher property taxes, saving money for Minnesota’s taxpayers.

With a massive budget deficit on the horizon, the Legislature cannot continue to use accounting gimmicks or push state services to other levels of government. State and county leaders need to propose innovative ideas and strategies to improve government services while holding the line on spending in order to provide new transparency to a system in desperate need of repair.

But county commissioners will not be able to streamline services or lower local property taxes without the support of our local legislators. If legislators fail to remove the shackles from counties, local governments will collapse from the weight of mandates and inefficiencies. The time is now for change.

Paul Wilson is president of the Association of Minnesota Counties and an Olmsted County commissioner.