here for PDF format
here for participants' responses to this interview
Meeting - Jim Mulder, Exec. Director, Association of Minnesota Counties
Civic Caucus, 8301
Creekside Circle, Bloomington, MN 55437
Friday, November 13,
Johnson, chair; David Broden, Janis Clay (by phone), Marianne Curry, Paul
Gilje, Jim Hetland, Dan Loritz, Jim Olson (by phone), and Bob White
Context of the meeting:
The Civic Caucus will be giving priority attention to redesign of public
services, as a way to maintain and improve quality within severe revenue
constraints. The Association of Minnesota Counties has recently issued a
report (http://bit.ly/41Bf7O) on how services at the county level might be
Welcome and introductions--Verne
and Paul welcomed and introduced Jim Mulder,
executive director, Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC). Mulder
was born and raised in Renville, MN and is a graduate of the University of
Minnesota. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree and has earned a Masters
degree from the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Jim is
currently working towards a doctoral degree in Public Administration at
Mulder has been the
executive director for AMC for over twenty years. Prior to holding this
position, he served as county coordinator for McLeod County and worked for
the Minnesota House of Representatives as a researcher and a committee
administrator for the House Tax Committee.
Comments and discussion--During
Mulder's comments and in discussion with the Civic Caucus the following
points were raised:
1. Current local government service delivery
models aren't sustainable--Going
back to 2001 the AMC began recognizing that the way services are delivered
at the local government level cannot be sustained, Mulder said.
Available revenues are constantly falling short of meeting mandates from
the Governor and State Legislature. County governments in Minnesota
currently levy a total of $2.5 billion in property taxes every year, of
which $800 million is collected to satisfy requirements of the state, he
structure of local governments and their numbers is not adequate. There's
no transparency in the system. The public has no clue as to which level
of local government is doing what. The Legislature spends way too much
time on specifying how services should be delivered and very little time
on increasing performance.
has changed, with vast improvements in the availability and transfer of
information. Our local governments need to change, too.
distributed an AMC memo (http://bit.ly/3NlXku) outlining the need for:
--Clear responsibilities for each type of
--Holding officials accountable to their
--Delivering services at the most appropriate
level of government
--Ability to tailor services to local needs
2. Overlapping responsibilities between
counties and cities--In one county in western Minnesota,
between the county sheriff's office and the city police forces the county
has a total of 37 officers for 19,000 people, or one officer for every 514
people. That's four times as many officers as the national average of one
for every 2,000 people.
3. Social workers spend way too much time on paper work--Social
workers in counties spend about 45 percent of their time filling out forms
required by the state, he said. They submit forms to two separate state
offices. One state office checks up on whether county social workers are
working and another state office checks up on whether the county social
workers are doing what they should be. The state rewards a structural
focus: who is doing what. The state isn't paying attention to what are
we getting at the end of the pipe.
4. Too much money being spent trying to cure
people with chronic problems--Mulder mentioned a northern
Minnesota county where 12 percent of the money goes to serve 4 percent of
the people who are chronically in rehab for chemical dependency. It
would be far better to put the money into a safe house for the chronic
alcoholics, he said. The first role should be to make people safe, but
the state doesn't focus on that objective.
5. Overbuilding jails--Cities
and counties have been overbuilding jails for the last 10 years. As
required by the State Department of Corrections, jail cells are built for
the worst of the worst offenders. Counties are encouraged to build more
cells than they need, supposedly so they can rent vacant cells out to
other agencies. While a metropolitan county was building a 200-bed jail,
a city in the same county was spending $4 million to build an eight-cell
jail of its own.
five days of incarceration provide all the deterrent that is needed for
people who are locked up for doing something wrong but aren't a danger to
others, as contrasted with people who are locked up because they represent
a danger to others, Mulder said. It really doesn't make sense to keep
someone locked up for 4-5 years, at a cost of $70,000 a year. For a lot
less money you could provide many other options, including work release.
6. Too much government?--A Civic
Caucus member noted that counties are administrative arms of state
government, while cities have an independence of their own. Counties, the
member said, seem to be an invisible part of government. Mulder said
that counties are trying to change the culture of counties. You need to
understand that county boundaries were established between 100 and 150
years ago. Boundaries for the bottom one-third of counties in the state
were established according to whether a farmer could ride a horse to and
from the county seat in one day. Boundaries for the middle one-third were
set based on where the rivers, providing natural boundaries, are located.
The northern one-third of counties were originally set up based on the
amount of area needed to support county government via the sale of beaver
7. Poor use of levies for libraries--Counties
are required by the state to levy $190 million in property tax for public
libraries. The law contains an automatic escalator for increasing the
levy every year. Counties can't cut the levy, regardless of the need.
One northern Minnesota county spends $14 per book to deliver via
bookmobiles. Netflix could deliver the book for $1.50.
8. Cooperation among local governments--Recognizing
that the Legislature needs to grapple with the overall structure of local
government, Mulder said he meets regularly with his counterparts in the
League of Minnesota Cities and the Minnesota School Boards Association.
The three types of local governments conduct a joint legislative
any changes in the structures and numbers of local governments would be
exceedingly difficult, Mulder said, because we've lived with a culture of
"silos" for such a long time. Cities represent one silo; townships,
another silo; counties, anther silo; school districts, another silo;
regional governments, another silo, and so forth.
Caucus member said that the public identifies readily with cities and
school districts, but they have trouble figuring out the role of county
government. The average citizen has little direct contact with county
9. Pension plans in trouble--Responding
to a question, Mulder said the pension plans that serve local government
employees are in serious trouble because pension obligations greatly
exceed reserves that will be needed to pay those obligations.
10. Structure of regional governments--The
AMC opposes an elected Metropolitan Council, Mulder said. The counties
would prefer that the Metropolitan Council be changed to a council of
governments, with its members representing various units of local
11. Providing for the rehab of some people and
the safety of the entire population--A
Civic Caucus member observed that government dare not neglect its
responsibility for the safety of the entire population while also trying
to rehab the troubled individuals. Another member said that no one seems
to be addressing the problem of the factors that contribute to violence,
which, in turn, drives the spending.
Mulder replied that
many successful efforts are under way to provide juvenile diversion.
12. Authorization for inter-county cooperation--To
encourage counties to work together in providing services the 2009
Legislature enacted a bill for service delivery authorities. See (http://bit.ly/cXTlV).
An overseeing council (http://bit.ly/4vCNBN) is created by the
legislation. Mulder expects we will see many creative ideas emerging
from counties under this new legislation. He mentioned an 11-county
cooperative effort on licensing home care providers, which will provide
better service and cut eight full-time equivalent positions.
people to self-organize for economies, he said. You can't accomplish your
goal with a big state-mandated reorganization. Using the new legislation
counties should be able to alleviate the burgeoning bureaucracy,
concentrate on outcomes, and accomplish expenditure control, he said.
ideas are out there, he said. It's permissible now for a psychiatrist to
visit with a person via long-distance video connection. The same should
be true for social workers, who now must visit with clients in person,
even in sparsely populated areas.
counties are so small, Mulder said, that we should expect some mergers to
occur. For example, one county western Minnesota has 3,700 people, and
another, next door, has 4,200 people. You could arrange for merger and
still preserve old identities by retaining the original county names for
the merged areas, he said.
City-county mergers are being explored in some parts of the state, he
13. Mulder is cool to tax-deductibility for
family care of elderly parents--Responding
to a Civic Caucus member's question, Mulder said one should not use the
tax code for social policy. Were the state to decide that sons and
daughters of the elderly could receive a tax-deduction for their expenses
of providing care, there'd be no way to set boundaries on eligibility.
Far better, he said, for the state to provide money to an elderly person
whose need is clearly defined, and let the person and the family involved
decide how best to provide the care.
14. Coordination on emergency calls--The
state already has reduced the number of 911 call entities, Public Service
Answering Points, or PSAPs, from 180 to about 110, Mulder said. Within
three years he expects that the number will be reduced to about 30 PSAPs.
Proximity isn't necessary, he noted. One western Minnesota County
contracted its PSAP service to a non-adjacent county and saved about
$70,000 a year.
15. Cut out spending requirements that aren't needed--Counties
in Minnesota now spend about $150,000 to $200,000 a year filling out forms
to comply with requirements of a pay equity act. Counties are required by
federal law to provide pay equity. What's the state's interest in
requiring the report to be filled out, he asked?
16. Change from a "buffet" of services to a
"menu" of limited services--Counties
offer a choice of some 26-28 social service programs and encourage people
to choose from such a "buffet". It would be better, he said, if they cut
the number back to a "menu" with far fewer choices. Disabled children
resemble almost a "favored-nation" status when it comes to programs
available for them. It's extremely difficult for the county to help
others with their needs, he said.
17. Reduce the overlapping units of government on the
too many agencies are involved in water, Mulder said. One obvious change
would be to fold Soil and Water Conservation Districts, whose boundaries
are co-terminus with counties, into county governments, he said.
18. Provide state aid by "capitation" to local areas?--Nothing
the immense difficulty in accomplishing a change in the number and levels
of local government, a Civic Caucus member inquired whether the state
could distribute all the aid it now provides by different formulas to
townships, cities, counties, school districts, and special districts in
block grants to several geographically-based areas and let the locals
decide how to divide the money among the various local governments within
19. Big shifts occurring in distribution of
property tax burden--Statewide
we've seen agricultural values rising 30-40 percent, with homeowners
values declining 8-10 percent. One urban county's property values, in
total, declined from $78 billion to $72 billion, while a rural county's
values increased from $900 million to $1.4 billion. That rural county
will lose about $500,000 in state aid because of the increase in property
shift will occur shortly between homeowners and business property, he
said. Commercial-industrial values were up this year, but next year
homeowners will experience a significant increase in property taxes as the
values of commercial-industrial property drop.
20. Need to find more local non-governmental
leaders--Mulder said he agrees with a Civic Caucus member who
said the state faces a big challenge in finding good leaders in the
private sector to initiate and support needed changes in local
government. The member said that 20 years ago one could identify
throughout the state top leadership in the private sector. That no longer
is possible, the member said.
behalf of the Civic Caucus, Verne thanked Mulder for meeting with us