Local leaders look for way to reshape government

For the past month or so, hundreds of Minnesota mayors, school board members, county officials and other local government leaders have gathered quietly in a half dozen sessions around the state to brainstorm their way out of their increasingly high-wire predicament.

On the table has been everything from sharing police dispatchers to doing away with many of the county, city and school district boundary lines that crisscross the state. The meetings, convened by the Association of Minnesota Counties, the League of Minnesota Cities and the Minnesota School Board Association, come at a time many of those local officials are feeling more and more of a financial and service squeeze: Keep taxes down but don’t give up services.

The last of the six meetings was held Tuesday evening in Eagan, where about 100 metro area officials got together, and the ideas were legion:

–Streamline the complicated delivery of social services, making recipients more productive without abdicating the need to offer support.

–Get police and sheriff departments to share ideas, training and practices more often.

–Reduce the number of cities, counties and school districts, figuring out a way to maintain community identities at the same time. “There’s too damn many boundaries,” was the way one official described it.

–Get rid of state mandates that hem local governments in and discourage experiments.

The backdrop for the thinking was a sobering introduction by state demographer Tom Gillaspy, who tried to drill home the idea that the world has changed and isn’t going to change back. As the 65-plus generation expands to unprecedented levels and the labor force shrinks, he outlined a half dozen facets to what has come to be called the “new normal.”

–Slower economic growth. Productivity gains won’t make up for a decline in the number of workers.

–Talent will be scarce. Those who find it will succeed.

–As the economy in general focuses on productivity, the public sector needs to step up.

–Government deficits and service cuts will be chronic.

–Paying for past promises will be a growing concern.

–Disruptive events will be more frequent.

–New opportunities will present themselves.

If local leaders want to get beyond the dilemma of raising taxes or cutting services, they will have to push for increased economic growth and increased government productivity, Gillaspy said. And that doesn’t just mean figuring out more efficient snowplowing methods. It means things like increasing the high school graduation rate and innovating to deal with advances in medicine that change the population.

Legislators have been involved in these “redesign” sessions and will try to move the conversation into the lawmaking arena. But there was a strong current that the state role may be in part simply to get out of the way.

“We have to let people try things and make mistakes,” said Rep. Carol McFarlane, R-White Bear Lake, who attended all six of the sessions. “In government (too often) we don’t allow that.”

New Prague Mayor Chuck Nickolay has been involved in a Scott County collaboration and thinks there are lots of opportunities. “You can’t do everything, but pick the easy things,” he said.

McFarlane is a co-chair of the House Redesign Caucus, a bipartisan effort established in 2010 to encourage new ways of looking at local government. She’ll be talking about the topic before the House State Government Finance Committee at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 6.

The effort to get local leaders talking about ways to reshape local government is getting support beyond the “big three” local government organizations and the redesign caucus. The Bush Foundation, the Blandin Foundation, the Minneapolis Foundation, the Minnesota Community Foundation, the Northwest Area Foundation and the St. Paul Foundation have leant support as well.

As we continue our Forced to Choose project, we’ll be looking at this question of delivering services differently. Stay tuned.

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