County board, legislators discuss funding issues facing state, area

Published 5:00 pm Saturday, February 4, 2012

County commissioners and local legislators agreed Minnesota has money issues, but the sides aren’t sure on the best solution.

Rep. Rich Murray, R-Albert Lea, Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, and Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, met with the county board Tuesday to talk about issues facing Mower County and the state.

Commissioners touched on a number of concerns in Mower County: high poverty rates, the “working poor,” a rising number of elderly citizens in need of care, state mandates, high detox costs, funding cuts and high Human Services costs.

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Poppe noted most of the problems have one thing in common: funding.

“We need more revenue,” she said.

“We have some major issues in the state, and we’ve got to come up with revenue,” she added. “I think that means some people have to pay more taxes.”

Opinions greatly differ on where revenue should come from, and Murray was quick to warn government doesn’t exist to solve every problem.

“Government can’t take care of everything, and we’re trying to take care of too many things,” Murray said.

Commissioner Jerry Reinartz said things like taxes can’t be viewed as the only fix, and the problem may be with the amount of government spending.

“The problem is that government has gotten too big,” he said, adding that he feels many taxpayers agree with him.

Over the past few years, county government has faced a number of cuts from the state, like reductions to County Program Aid and the end of the market value homesetead credit. The credit’s end passed about $1.2 million to local governments and taxpayers, according to County Coordinator Craig Oscarson. But Murray said the credit is not likely to be renewed, because it the dollars weren’t being proportionately passed on across the state as it was meant to.

Murray noted the credit’s end did create a wave of unintended consequences for residents.

Oscarson said he’s hoping state leaders are more aware of such issues in the future.

“We’re asking that you be more cognizant of the shift to counties and property taxes,” he said.

If the county faces more cuts, Oscarson said the board could be looking at difficult decisions, like cutting deputies.

The county board hasn’t simply been sitting on the sidelines, and commissioners outlined ways they’ve been trying to save money.

The county is currently merging Public Health and Human Services, and the board merged Environmental Services and the Highway Department to form Public Works.

Mower is also one of 12 counties in the early stages of redesigning Human Services and looking into ways counties can share duties.

“If nothing else, it shows that county government is not sitting on its rear end, we’re trying to help you guys out,” Oscarson said.

Board members urged the state not to pass any more cuts down to local government agencies. If cuts are necessary, Oscarson said they should be matched by reductions in state mandates — services the state requires counties to perform — so they don’t handcuff county government.

“Don’t continue to strangle us, and see those unintended consequences that you don’t want to see either,” Oscarson said.

Levy limits are one piece of legislation on the table that worries county officials, because it would tie board’s hands when budgeting.

While Murray said levy limits have been discussed, he said the issue doesn’t have universal support in either party.

Commissioners urged the legislators to support the the Magic Act, which allows counties to try ideas to provide services in a new way.

The bill stalled in a committee last year.

The legislators sympathized with the difficulties the county has faced in recent years, but solutions won’t come easily.

“There are no simple answers,” Poppe said.

The answer, Oscarson argued, will come from a variety of sources and changes.

“You’re not going to find one single answer,” Oscarson told the legislators.

Sparks said meeting with local government agencies is very beneficial for legislators as they head to the capitol.

“It’s very informative and helpful for us when we return to St. Paul,” he said.

A look at the legislative session

Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, said the key focus in St. Paul is jobs as they work on a bonding bill.

The Legislature isn’t facing the divisive budget that led to a prolonged state shutdown last year. In a bonding year, Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, said the legislators could decide to convene at any time, since no business is required. Rep. Rich Murray, R-Albert Lea, noted they’re likely to end session early this spring.

“We’re not going to have the budget issues we did last year,” Murray said.

But there’s a host of work to be done first.

Murray said he doesn’t want to spend much more money, and he’d rather focus on things like policy issues and other changes.

“I hope we’re going to try to keep things simple up at the Legislature this year,” Murray said.

One way to solve some of the state’s revenue issues could be bonding and racino dollars. While Poppe said she is not in favor using gambling dollars, Sparks said it’s something he’d at least like to see put to a vote.

Murray said issues surrounding the Minnesota Vikings wishes for a new stadium will likely to be discussed at some point.

Hurting budgets in attorney’s office

Less than week into February, Mower County Attorney Kristen Nelsen is already facing problems in part of her budget.

Nelsen told local legislators that she’s practically used up her $3,500 trial preparation budget, much of it on the attempted first-degree murder case for Mongong Kual Maniang Deng.

Even though Deng, 20, entered an Alford plea agreement before his trial began, Nelsen still spent money preparing for the trial.

“It adds up, and the more serious trials you have, the more expensive they are,” she said.

Nelsen said doctors are charging $500 an hour to serve as expert witnesses and offer opinions on trails.

“I’m getting bills for thousands of dollars,” she said

Trails from Rose Creek to Austin

With some luck and funding, local bikers could soon ride across the county.

Public Works Director Mike Hanson said the plans are being discussed to have the Shooting Star Trail finally reach Austin. Last summer, the project was completed through up to Rose Creek. The trail now reaches to LeRoy.

Many local groups are discussing a preliminary route from Rose Creek into Austin.

“If there’s money’s there, we accelerate our movement,” Hanson said.