Will anyone pick up this hot potato?

Published 8:51 am Friday, February 11, 2011

It will be interesting to see if anything comes of the hot potato that county commissioners and lawmakers from the area were tossing back and forth last week in the Mower County Government Center.

The commissioners have, for years, wanted the ability to appoint the county auditor-treasurer and recorder, posts that have traditionally been filled based on a county-wide vote during regular elections. If the positions were appointed, commissioners could place the individual of their preference in the job, reconfigure or combine the jobs and, they believe, save as much as $70,000 per year.

Why is that a hot potato? Because giving commissioners control also means taking that control out of the voters’ hands, and voters aren’t always comfortable giving away their own power. So the easiest way for a county board to take control of the auditor-treasurer and recorder jobs is to get the change approved at the state Capitol, effectively passing the buck up the government ladder.

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The alternative is to hold a referendum, which can not only be costly in dollars but perhaps also in popularity, a coin that few politicians are willing to spend.

So when the board tried to toss that potato to Rep. Jeanne Poppe (DFL-Austin), Rep. Rich Murray (R-Albert Lea) and Sen. Dan Sparks (DFL-Austin), they got it back in their laps.

Poppe, who had sponsored that legislation on the board’s behalf previously, politely declined to do so this year. “I probably wouldn’t go down that road again,” she told the commissioners.

So will the Mower County Board take the step on its own? It would seem fiscally prudent to do so. Even if running a referendum costs $25,000, saving $70,000 makes that look like a pretty good investment. Even if it took two or three tries to get a favorable result, the return on investment would be good.

It’s a gamble, however. And what would the voters think? Would it look like a smart financial move or would it play more like a loss of voter power? And would the sponsoring commissioners look bad as a result? Should they care, if it’s the right thing to do?

Of course, there’s still a chance that Murray, who has plenty to say about his commitment to government reform, will sponsor the bill.

Another potato that might be heating up is the Shooting Star Trail. Obtaining from the state the last dollars needed to complete the bike route’s missing segment to Austin has generally been seen as a good thing. Besides providing recreational opportunities, the trail might be a boon to bicycle tourism revenue, particularly since much of the money for the project would come from the state.

As the state — and just about everyone else — grapples with budget shortfalls, however, spending $850,000 to finish the trail may not have complete support. “If you’re out riding between Austin and Rose Creek, what are you going to see?” asked Commissioner Tim Gabrielson. “You might see some wildflowers. You might see a wild turkey. But mostly it’s corn and soybeans fields.”

The state, he said, would do better to spend its recreational money cleaning up rivers and streams.

Gabrielson might just have a point. But would the county ever turn down the funds if the state offered them? Could it afford to? Would it want to?

Whether the state will ever make the funds available is the biggest question, so the issue may never come down to a tough decision. But if it does, there might actually be some debate.

The larger point is that times are changing. Government money — which means taxpayer money — is getting scarce. Lots of things — whether it’s the auditor-treasurer’s office or recreational choices — are on the table these days, staying hot.