Necessity, the mother of government reinvention

By Jennifer Vogel

MPR News

No question, the financial picture is shifting in Minnesota. Cities weathering cuts to state aid, a down economy and declining property values have come to rely increasingly on property taxes to fund their budgets. At the same time, many communities have become leaner, cutting back on parks, libraries and even police services, as we’ve reported in our Forced to Choose series.

But trimming staff and delaying road repairs will only get a city or county so far. People all over the state are discussing ways to alter the very way government works. They want it to be more efficient and cost-effective and maybe, in the best of all worlds, provide better services to people who need them.

I found it interesting that some of the most challenged places in the state are ahead in this regard. They’re reinventing because they have to.

A trip to western Traverse County, the least populated county in Minnesota, provided a case in point. The county has just 3,558 people in it and they skew quite a bit older than the state average. A main industry is farming and as far as I could tell, there is just one motel in the entire county, in the county seat of Wheaton.

That’s where Janet Raguse, the county coordinator, works in the basement of a partially-empty brick courthouse. She told me that the county has been “reinventing” itself since the 1960s. Because the tax base is small there, it can’t afford a lot of government. It shares department heads–for social services, public health, veterans services–with neighboring counties. It applies for grants jointly and participates in buying groups.

For years, people have talked about having fewer counties in the state, which ideally would mean less bureaucracy and overhead to pay for. But in Traverse County, these partnerships have de facto created a version of that already. Most departments are just one or two people and sometimes they’re run by a director in another county.

Beltrami County is another example. It’s one of the poorest counties in the state, with 21 percent of its people living below the poverty line. As county administrator Tony Murphy put it, “We’re always in crisis.”

Yet, out of that crisis has come inventive thinking. Since 2007, the county has been moving toward what is known as “outcome-based” government, which is exactly what it sounds like. Programs are judged primarily by how effective they are. In contrast to a straight up budget-cutting strategy, the county has been willing to invest additional dollars in new efforts.

For example, it now provides two years of education to promising welfare recipients rather than the more typical one year. Murphy went to the state and fought for permission to make this change. The county will spend more money up front, but expects to save in the long run as beneficiaries are able to land jobs and leave the county rolls for good.

Again, it seems to me that Beltrami County is being creative because it can’t afford to serve its constituency well and do things the same old way.

State demographer Tom Gillaspy predicts that the state will grow older by the end of the decade. That means we’ll have more people who need services and fewer people working to foot the bill. In other words, the state will look a little more like Traverse County.

Even with improvements to the economy, it appears that financial pressures aren’t going away any time soon. And, if Traverse and Beltrami Counties are any measure, that pressure will keep pushing local governments to do things differently.

(See also what reporters Curtis Gilbert and Tom Robertson and editor Dave Peters take away from their Forced to Choose coverage.)

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