Minnesota county officials need to balance tight budgets, but some say they are frustrated by state laws that prevent them from saving money.
Local officials contend state requirements sometimes make them to spend money inefficiently. One state agency is giving counties a chance to change the system.
Jon Evert, a Clay County commissioner and President of the Association of Minnesota Counties, says there are likely thousands of unfunded mandates that cities and counties in Minnesota must follow, even if they mean spending more money.
"Even though we think we can do it in a better way, a less expensive way, we're required to do it in a way that sometimes is more expensive," said Evert. "And that really annoys local policymakers, when they're being required to do more with less."
Some of the issues are simple. Evert says Clay county could save $30,000 a year by posting public documents on its Web site, instead of publishing them in newspapers. But state law requires the newspaper publication.
Other state mandates are more complex. Spending requirements for social service programs, for example, are an area of frustration for many county officials.
Becker County Human Services Director Nancy Nelson says most mandates are well intentioned, but result in a one-size-fits-all approach to government.
“We're required to do it in a way that sometimes is more expensive.”Jon Evert, Clay County commissioner
"It's not any one big thing that's going to sink my budget. But there is a whole bunch of little ones," said Nelson. "We're dying from a thousand paper cuts. There's not a gaping wound, but there are certainly lots and lots of little things the counties are required to do that there's no funding for."
As an example, she says state laws that increase the paperwork required for each case might seem small, but they eat into the time social workers spend with clients.
Another requirement involves children who are in foster care.
"Social workers have to meet every month with every child in placement. That's one thing, to meet if they're all located in Becker County. But if they're placed with family -- and that's a good thing -- up on the North Shore, that's quite a trek to go up there every month. And that's a county expense, there's no reimbursement for that," said Nelson.
In some cases the state requires counties to spend a certain amount of money on a program each year. It's called maintenance of effort. Nelson says the practice started years ago, because advocacy groups and legislators wanted some way to know counties were providing services like mental health care.
"The joke always was -- and it really wasn't a joke -- that the money for mental health would be used for road graders. Now, I don't think any counties would do that, but that was always the concern," said Nelson.
The state adjusted its "maintenance of effort" requirements for mental health care last year, to help counties adjust what they spend.
Nelson says Becker County's spending on mental health care still exceeds demand for services. She'd like to spend the extra money on prevention programs to help head off mental health issues before they reach a crisis. But she says under state law, the county can't spend that pot of money on prevention.
Nelson says caseloads change every year, and sometimes the county has a hard time spending the money on the required program. She'd rather have the freedom to shift money to other programs where the need might be greater in a given year.
In the future she might have that choice. The Minnesota Department of Human Services is in the midst of a legislatively mandated redesign.
The first step is to develop new ways to measure how counties provide services. Counties are being asked to offer ideas for reducing cost and making programs more effective.
Chuck Johnson, an assistant commissioner for DHS, says the redesign will be shaped by input from counties.
"It really is putting it out to the counties and saying, 'OK, here's your opportunity to show us what a redesigned human services system would look like,'" said Johnson. "We will see over the next several years if that produces the kind of change we think is needed, or if we need to look at another way of going about this."
Johnson says the challenge is maintaining consistent programs across the state, while allowing counties some flexibility in how they deliver services.
Jon Evert of the Association of Minnesota Counties says counties want to be judged on what they accomplish, not how much they spend.
"We're not saying we don't want to be accountable. We think the state should establish outcomes that are our goal and how we're measured, rather than the dollars we put into the program."
Evert says county officials are developing a list of mandates to target in the upcoming legislative session.