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County could lose more money under Pawlenty proposal

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

State budget cuts affecting Stevens County could be deeper than expected if it doesn't comply with Gov. Tim Pawlenty's call to develop regional Human Services operations.

County Commissioners heard a review of the governor's proposal at their regular meeting Tuesday.

Under Pawlenty's proposed 2010-2011 budget, Stevens County is slated for County Program Aid cuts of about $87,000 in 2009 and $160,000 in 2010. The governor already took back more than $90,000 from the county in December to help balance the state's 2008 budget.

But Pawlenty wants counties to take steps to consolidate Human Services operations across the state from the county level to 15 regional centers. If counties choose to not comply, they face deeper program aid cuts. In Stevens County, that would translate into a $138,000 reduction for 2009 -- which is $51,000 more than if it regionalizes. The county would be cut more than $227,000 in 2010, which represents an addition $67,000 in aid reductions.

In total, the county aid cuts would be about $247,000 if it accepts the regional concept, and the reductions would be more than $365,000 if the county chooses to operate its Human Services independently.

"The governor is offering this (regionalization) as a carrot, if you will," said County Coordinator Jim Thoreen.

County Human Services Director Joanie Murphy said the county already shares many services with surrounding counties such as Traverse, Grant, Pope and Douglas, and that she's not sure how much more the county would need to consolidate to be considered in compliance with Pawlenty's proposal. To reach population thresholds, the county might have to consolidate into its existing nine-county region, she said.

There's greater concern among Human Services officials statewide about other Pawlenty budget cuts, including reductions in MinnesotaCare, General Assistance and other programs that serve the state's working poor, Murphy said.

There's also concern about when counties would have to be in compliance if Pawlenty's proposal is approved by the Legislature, Murphy said.

"I hope if this passes, we have some time to figure this out," she said.

In other county business:

• Consolidation of services was also the theme in the board's discussion of the Regional Public Safety Answering Points proposal by Pawlenty.

In January, Pawlenty called for the creation of a Governor's Working Group to address consolidation of PSAPs, which, essentially, are dispatch services for law enforcement and public safety.

Pawlenty wants the state's 101 PSAPs reduced to save money. The idea would be for, as an example, Stevens County to serve as a "hub" PSAP for surrounding communities such as Benson, Glenwood and Wheaton.

The state pays for all routing of 911 calls, so the state would save money by paring that list down, said Stevens County Sheriff Randy Willis.

But at the local level, counties wouldn't see significant savings since emergency calls aren't a large part of the dispatchers' duties compared with handling regular, administrative calls to agencies. Until administrative calls are handled by a hosting agency, the county wouldn't experience much of a cost reduction, Willis said.

Pawlenty points to the successful consolidation of PSAPs among city and county governments in Dakota, Ramsey, Washington, Rice, Steele and Clay counties.

By Jan. 4, 2010, Pawlenty wants the working group to develop a strategy for implementing regional PSAPs.

• County resident Charlie Berg spoke again about his objections to the jail construction portion of a building project the board approved last summer and is expected to commence this spring.

The county board is expected to approve the sale of jail bonds for the project at its Feb. 17 meeting, and construction is scheduled to begin this spring.

Berg and other county residents opposed to the jail have attended three previous board meetings to express their concerns about the project.

Berg said Tuesday that his figures on the county's jail population are at odds with what commissioners are contending, and that with the economy in "free fall," this isn't the time to include a jail in the project.

"We're in a different world, capital-wise, than we were even a year ago," he said.

Berg also contends that a statute providing for the transportation and housing of prisoners to other county jails allows the county to continue to do that. Berg said that transporting and housing prisoners in other county jails, rather than building a jail, would save taxpayers about $500,000 each year.

"If you have any feelings for the taxpayers of this county, you'll rethink this thing," Berg said.

Commissioner Don Munsterman said he did not agree with Berg's figures but didn't elaborate.

When Berg said the county should continue efforts to create a regional jail system with surrounding counties, Commissioner Larry Sayre said the county had tried to organize regional and two-county jail operations but those efforts failed.

Sayre said he's stated his position on the jail topic several times in the past and that he wasn't going to repeat it during Tuesday's meeting.

County Attorney Charles Glasrud said the statute Berg cited allows county's to transport and house prisoners if its jail is closed for some reason or is full, but does not supercede the state statute which mandates that all Minnesota counties have a jail.

Berg singled out Sayre, Munsterman and Commissioner Paul Watzke -- the three cast the deciding votes to move ahead with the $15 million project -- saying "Maybe you three are right and the rest of us are wrong, but what I think you are doing is a crime against taxpayers."

Later, Berg said, "When you open the jail, the first three inmates should be those three commissioners because they are defrauding the taxpayers."