Editorial: County system falling apart

Published 8:51 am Friday, March 5, 2010

If you own a car, appliance or any other costly item, then you’re at least vaguely familiar with the concept of entropy — namely, the scientific principle that describes the tendency for systems to go from a state of high organization to a state of low organization.

In other words, no matter how wonderful and flawless a product or system may be at the time of its creation, and no matter how careful you are to protect and maintain it, deterioration is inevitable. Machines and systems of all types break down. As poet William Butler Yeats wrote, “Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.”

The Association of Minnesota Counties is convinced that the financial relationship between the state and its 87 counties is in a fairly advanced stage of entropy — and with good reason. Since 2002, when general aid to counties was $231 million, the bottom has fallen out. In Olmsted County, for example, where the population has grown, the state’s per capita support has fallen by 37 percent — the equivalent of $22 per resident.

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Complicating matters is the fact that counties are at the mercy of state mandates about how they will spend that money. Some of these mandates require steady or increasing funding for employment and training programs, regional library systems and services for the mentally ill and chemical dependent.

As the budgetary pie shrinks, ever-larger slices are already spoken for.

It’s an unsustainable system. So, rather than sitting around and waiting for it to fail, the AMC has developed the framework for a new system.

We like what we see so far, especially the idea that county governments would fully wean themselves from state aid. Revenue from a new local sales tax would be far more predictable and consistent, allowing counties to set budgets that are based on facts, rather than hope and which political party happens to control the Legislature and the governor’s mansion.

The devil is in the details, of course, and there are many questions that remain to be answered. We’re not sure how the state would take care of roads and services in counties that “opt out” of the new system, and we wonder how our cash-strapped judicial system could be streamlined to the tune of a $20 million annual savings.

But first things first. We applaud the AMC for its willingness to go out on a limb and propose a new, outside-the-box way of dealing with their financial distress. We’ll watch eagerly to see if our elected officials in St. Paul are willing to let counties take ownership and control of services that have long been under the control of state agencies.

We’re certain of one thing: the status quo isn’t an option, because things really are beginning to fall apart.

— Post-Bulletin of Rochester, March 3.