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Counties call for redesign, but some object

ST. PAUL -- County governments would take over most state road maintenance work, state patrol duties and could levy a half-cent sales tax under a plan they unveiled Tuesday.

But some county leaders do not like the proposal.

It is a 10-point plan designed to "ensure that Minnesotans get better results from government," Clay County Commissioner Jon Evert said, which could be a starting point to major changes.

The Association of Minnesota Counties, of which Evert is president, claims the plan would save the state nearly $1 billion per two-year budget. Evert and association Executive Director Jim Mulder said they understand changes will not happen immediately, but parts of the plan could start soon. It needs legislative approval.

Among elements of the proposal is one to turn over most of the state Highway Patrol duties to sheriff's offices on the theory that state, city and county law enforcement officers often patrol the same road, and $75 million could be saved every two years, with an unknown number of state troopers losing their jobs.

Another element is what counties say would be a $200 million state savings by turning over most state road maintenance work to the counties. The proposal is modeled after how Wisconsin maintains roads, although the Minnesota county plan would not have counties working on freeways.

The biggest state savings would be $600 million by eliminating state aid payments to counties. Instead, counties would be allowed to levy a sales tax of up to a half cent for every $1 purchase.

Some county officials said the association proposal was not ready for prime time.

Beltrami County Commissioner Joe Vene said it needs much more discussion.

"It is going to take some time," he said.

Evert did not disagree: "We want to start the conversation."

Vene said the patrol proposal, for instance, would upset troopers. "You think that your eradiation is imminent."

Other commissioners were not happy that they were asked to promote the plan to local media, even if they did not agree.

Washington County Commissioner Gary Kriesel fumed Tuesday morning that he was not given information about the proposal until Monday, but like other commissioners was asked by the organization to promote the plan.

At the same time, Kriesel said, the organization asked that commissioners keep quiet if they object to the plan.

He provided a letter signed by Mulder Evert: "If you are strongly opposed, we are asking you to hold your opposition in abeyance until AMC policy committees meet in March."

"This is ridiculous," Kriesel said.

At the Capitol, Evert admitted that the association plan does not have "100 percent support from counties."

Much of the plan resembles Capitol proposals from years past, such as reducing the number of mandates and rules the state places on counties.

The association described its proposal as "a bold redesign plan for Minnesota." Washington County leaders said shifting state work to local governments and enacting a county sales tax is not bold.

"The bold new proposal I have is cut spending," Kriesel said. "Don't raise revenue; cut spending."

Veteran Washington County Commissioner Myra Peterson said the organization messed up by not thoroughly vetting the reform plan ahead of the announcement. County commissioners from around the state had very little knowledge of the plan, or how it could affect their home counties, Peterson said.

"To me the issue was this policy was never discussed at the local level," she said.

And yet, Peterson noted, local governments would be affected, should the proposal become law.

In its letter to AMC members, Mulder and Evert said the organization wanted an aggressive response to the recent legislative unveiling of a Minnesota House government redesign caucus. They said reform group leader Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, is "sincere" in his efforts, but other legislators got on board because it helps their own elections or maybe because it could affect big constituency groups, such as unions.

Marquart plans to hear the plan in his committee today.

"Whether intended or not, the Legislature is attempting to hijack redesign for purposes we can only speculate upon," Mulder and Evert wrote.

Davis reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Daily Globe.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.