Beltrami County is in trouble. Its human services budget this year is running in the red and a big part of the problem is that costs for child out-of-home placement have skyrocketed. There are more kids placed in foster homes because parents are abusing drugs, more kids who need expensive mental health care, more kids headed to juvenile detention centers.
They're all services the county is required by law to provide. But Beltrami County officials say looming cuts in federal funding will make it difficult. Next year, the county expects to lose close to $2 million dollars in federal funds. County Commissioner Ron Otterstad says that means the burden will fall on local taxpayers.
"We have a low tax base and high needs," Otterstad says. "In that regard, it's a sinking ship, in that we can't continue to have mandated services that we have to provide and make up the difference with property taxes."
A significant portion of the county's human services budget funds administration of programs on the Red Lake Reservation. County and tribal officials believe changing that may be part of the solution. Ron Otterstad says the federal government should take more direct responsibility for Red Lake's needs.
“It goes back to the various treaties and obligations that the federal government made and the federal government needs to honor those.”Ron Otterstad
"There is a federal responsibility for health and welfare," he says. "It goes back to the various treaties and obligations that the federal government made and the federal government needs to honor those. That's part of the problem."
Beltrami County's relationship with the Red Lake Tribe is complicated. Since Red Lake is considered a sovereign nation, tribal members don't pay property taxes. The county gets additional federal funding to offset that but county officials say it's not enough. Red Lake is one of only two closed reservations in the country. That means the tribe has full sovereignty within its borders. Though tribal members are citizens of Minnesota and Beltrami County, state laws don't apply on the reservation. County law enforcement officials have no authority there.
But when it comes to human services, Beltrami County plays a significant role on the reservation. The county desides who's eligible for a variety of federal welfare benefits. The county also administers costs associated with child out-of-home placement.
The arrangement has worked for years but county and tribal leaders say a change could be mutually beneficial. Red Lake has long sought more autonomy and self-governance. In recent years, the tribe has developed many of its own social service programs. But Tribal Chairman Buck Jourdain says funding for those programs is sometimes messy. Federal dollars often flow first to the state and then the county before getting to the tribe. Jourdain says that's inefficient. He says the tribe prefers a direct government-to-government relationship with the United States.
"I know Red Lake's situation is complex," Jourdain says. "It gives a lot of people fits, because we have a different status and relationship with the state and federal government... It's a constant challenge, the interaction between the state, the fed, the tribe... It's a unique situation that requires a constant juggling." Tribal and county officials say working together to seek a new funding model increases the chances the state or federal government will take notice, but not everyone is optimistic. Sandra Parsons, director of the tribe's family and children's services, says the status quo is not working well. But Parsons says the U.S. government has a long history of ignoring its direct responsibilities when it comes to Indian treaties.
"The reality is, is that there have been tribes in this country working on that same issue for the last 10 years," Parsons says. "Nothing has happened so far. And I have a real sense of, that it's probably not going to happen in the next few years. There is no vehicle at this moment for direct federal funding to the tribe, or any tribe."
Beltrami County officials say one solution might be for the state of Minnesota to send federal funding directly to Red Lake, rather than funneling it through the county. If Beltrami County and tribal leaders agree, it's possible that idea might be pitched to the State Legislature when it meets in January.