Department heads with Morrison County got a chance to express their feelings on issues being discussed by the Minnesota State Legislature, Tuesday.
Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, and Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, briefly joined the Board of Commissioners remotely from St. Paul to hear what bills had caught the attention of those within the county government. Officials asked for support for or opposition to everything from issues regarding kiosks for the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to a proposed tax on landfills.
Community Corrections Coordinator Nicole Kern said when Gov. Tim Walz released his initial budget, it included a cut in funding for community corrections. Since the state learned in late February it was expected to enter the 2021-2022 fiscal year with a $1.6 billion budget surplus, rather than a $1.3 billion deficit as previously predicted, Walz’s revised budget included a 2% increase.
While she admitted that it’s “never enough,” she was pleased to hear about the 2% in extra funding. She asked the local legislators to support that portion of the budget.
“Without this increase, and if those cuts had happened, we may have lost staff in my office,” Kern said. “It could have come to that point. We run a thin budget that I’m proud of, because we provide great services with the staff I have, but I need those staff. I’m asking for support on that section of the governor’s budget.”
County Auditor/Treasurer Chelsey Robinson had several items for the legislators.
She first asked them to consider looking at how filing fees at the Deputy Registrar’s Office are allocated between the state and county. She asked for some of the funds to be reallocated to the county as a matter of balancing the budget and keeping staff at an appropriate level.
Robinson also mentioned House Bill 272, which would allow DMV offices throughout the state to provide self-service kiosks for motor vehicle license tab renewals.
“Our office is in support of this, but one thing that we would like to see is for the revenue stream to remain within our local offices,” Robinson said. “That would take care of the responsibility of the maintenance of the machine.”
In regard to elections, she asked for clarity on which, if any, provisions passed in response to COVID-19 would move forward, such as not requiring witnesses for absentee and mail-in ballots and allowing ballots postmarked by Election Day but not received until after, to be counted. She said her office had fielded several questions about these issues in the time since the 2020 general election.
Robinson also asked for counties to have the right to choose their own election equipment and to use polling place rosters, which would eliminate the need for people who vote absentee in-person to fill out an application.
Public Works Director Steve Backowski and Landfill Manager Jeff Meyer inquired about the Landfill Responsibility Act. The legislation, they said, would set up an additional 3% tax on gross revenues at solid waste landfills. Those funds would then be used to fund projects to reduce and reuse solid waste from a list of projects that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency would create.
Backowski said the legislation includes “costly waste composition studies” every three years. He estimated the 3% tax alone would cost the Morrison County Landfill $100,000 annually and would hinder projects the county already has in place to meet similar ends.
“We’ve utilized those funds to implement good programs,” Backowski said. “We have every one of our cities on refuse and recycling services. We have opportunities and programs for every one of our townships, clean-up days annually for both townships and cities, that have worked very well.
“We believe that this legislation actually would hinder our program,” he continued. “We would have less support and funding for our townships and cities for the programs they’ve put in place for many years and have been successful. For that reason we are recommending opposition for this legislation.”
County Public Health and Social Services Director Brad Vold also brought several issues to the table, perhaps the most pressing of which was the portion of Walz’s proposed budget that includes a reduction in adult mental health initiative funding.
“Counties have worked hard at these regional organizations to help oversee our mental health system,” Vold said. “Reducing that cost could create significant hardship for our region and what we’re doing with our providers to improve our mental health system.”
County Administrator Deb Gruber also voiced her opinion that legislation has not kept up with the support needed for law enforcement officers diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She urged the state to provide more support for counties in terms of clarifying what benefits are due to officers when such a diagnosis occurs, along with aid in funding those benefits.
“Supporting law enforcement is absolutely what we do,” Gruber said. “This is our business and we need to do that and we need to stand strong in that, but we need to make sure we’re identifying those benefits and working through those benefits in an appropriate way.”
After all the department heads who wanted to speak had their chance, Gazelka asked how much money Morrison County is slated to receive from the $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package that passed earlier this month. Gruber said the county is expecting to receive about $6.5 million, but she is curious to see the details.
Gazelka said officials at the state level are grappling with the same curiosity, trying to figure out “what strings are attached” and how people can use that funding.
In addressing some of the topics raised by Morrison County officials and those of other local governments, he said taxes will not go up and he “was never” going to reduce Local Government Aid.
“A number of your issues, it’s the first time it’s on my radar, so that’s really helpful,” Gazelka said. “Keep talking to us, but I do think we’ll get a budget done. There shouldn’t be really any reductions that I’m aware of. We’ve gotta figure out how to use the federal money. You can help us with that.”
He and Kresha both stressed their desire to work with local governments on these issues. Gazelka particularly emphasized getting input from the county on matters regarding federal stimulus money.
“I think we proved ourself in the latest round of legislation and granting those dollars out,” Gruber said. “If you look at what county government did in a short period of time, in comparison to what the state government did with that. Not to knock our partners down in St. Paul, but I think allowing flexibility, I think allowing counties to respond locally to those needs is huge. I think we proved that with that $114 million that went out, and quickly, and well, and hit where it needed to hit.”
“I totally agree,” Gazelka said. “I do believe that local governments are more responsive to getting it to the places it’s needed more than the state, and the state more than the federal, so I’m with you.”
Kresha commended Gruber and all of the people who spoke during the meeting for bringing their concerns forward.
“You guys do a great job of keeping me up to date, and I appreciate all of the department heads,” he said.