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AMC action stirs anger in county officials

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

The Stevens County Board of Commissioners joined the chorus of county officials decrying proposed cost-saving methods the Association of Minnesota Counties presented for legislative discussions.

Like other county officials, Stevens County commissioners aren't totally opposed to all the suggestions. They were upset that AMC didn't run it by its constituency first.

The board discussed the AMC controversy at its regular meeting on Tuesday.

The AMC issued about 10 proposals it claims will reduce the state spending by about $1 billion in the biennium while at the same time giving counties more control over their functions.

The measures include reducing the State Patrol and allowing counties to patrol roadways within their borders, eliminating government aid and replacing it with a half-percent county sales tax, eliminating state mandates to counties and adopting streamlined Home Rule Charters processes.

While commissioners agreed some of the proposals made sense, others could be counterproductive for counties and appeared as if AMC were trying to appease state officials.

Commissioners stated that, through contact with other county commissioners, some are mad enough to have major initiatives hatched without proper consultation that they are openly contemplating withdrawing from AMC.

County Attorney Charles Glasrud, President of the Minnesota County Attorney's Association, said the association and AMC do not agree on many of the measures and that not consulting with the association about the plan was "just stupid."

The AMC does not expect that all or even some of the measures will be enacted by the Legislature, and commissioners said the issue might require plenty of fence-mending, especially with the impending -- and unexpected -- retirement of AMC executive director Jim Mulder.

"This proposal is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater," commissioner Paul Watzke said. "This doesn't work for us out here."

In other county business:

•Like the City of Morris, Stevens County will wait a month to advertise for bids for construction projects to see how the situation concerning Riley Bros. Construction pans out.

Riley Bros. is currently suspended by state law from bidding on government projects. The suspension stems from guilty pleas to defrauding the IRS that were entered late last year by company founders Joe Riley and John Riley. They are awaiting sentencing, and the company could be prohibited from bidding on any government jobs for up to three years.

County engineer Brian Giese stated that the current suspension has been extended to March 15, and that he would bring bid advertisements to the board after a final determination of Riley Bros.'s status is issued.

•County Coordinator Jim Thoreen officially submitted a letter announcing his retirement this spring. The board voted to accept the letter.

The commissioners have been meeting in work sessions to review the coordinator's position and possibly draw up job descriptions before hiring Thoreen's replacement. The general consensus among the board is that a replacement will be hired.

•Sheriff Randy Willis provided an update on the state's switch to the ARMER 800 megahertz radio system. All county, state and local law enforcement and emergency service personnel will use the system, which is designed to make communication among agencies easier, faster and more productive.

The county expects to switch to ARMER -- Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response -- in 12 to 16 months, Willis said.

The system is expected to cost about $1.4 million. To date, the county has about $460,000 in grants to help pay for the system. Another $50,000 to $60,000 in grants over the next two years to help fund the switch have been applied for, he said.

Thoreen noted that other counties have issued short-term bonds to help pay for the new system.

•The Stevens County Soil and Water Conservation District will assume the duties of County Agriculture Inspector for 2010.

Ag inspectors review county lands for such things as invasive species, noxious weeds, pests or fertilizer and pesticide problems.

The ag inspector position was cut from the county's budget, and since SWCD personnel already are engaged in similar activities, relegating the duties to SWCD is "a natural fit," said Matt Solemsaas, SWCD head told the board.

The SWCD also was assigned to oversee the counties duties under the Wetland Conservation Act.