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Crow Wing County considers eliminating two elected positions

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A proposal for Crow Wing County’s future could end two elected positions. Tuesday, Administrator Tim Houle presented a restructuring option eliminating two senior management positions. The proposal eliminates the electorate’s choice for auditor/treasurer and county recorder. Instead, Houle proposed replacing the two elected posts with an appointed administrative services director.

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No action was taken by the board as the proposal was discussed during a committee session. Such a move to eliminate the two elected positions requires special legislation and Houle noted that could post a challenge depending on local legislators’ willingness to sponsor the needed legislation.

“This is not about whether the offices should be elected or not,” Houle said, noting other counties are appointing those officials. There are 13 counties out of 87 without a recorder and 11 without an auditor/treasurer, Houle reported. He noted Crow Wing County used to have an elected county assessor, elected court administrator and a host of other elected offices.

“It’s not about whether you get to vote or not,” Houle said. “It’s about how we provide the service and in my mind the elected office should be about where we are setting policy. This is about the administration of policy. This is about making sure a document flows through a system more efficiently than it currently does.”

Houle said just appointing those officials doesn’t get to the main idea of eliminating the multiple offices people need to go to for services such as when a deed is recorded. His reorganization model would break up existing services in newly arranged departments. Houle said he cares about following the customer service and saving tax dollars and whether that is with an appointed or elected official is irrelevant to him.

“If you could tell me that electing every county office would accomplish that fact I’d be advocating for that,” Houle said. “ ... It’s not about elected or appointed. To me that’s a silly little argument. It is about the customer service experience. Can we improve customer service delivery? Can we make that service better and can we make it better and reduce our operating cost at the same time?”

Whatever will achieve that objective, Houle said is in his mind the direction to go and a way of focusing on the big picture.

“Eyes on the prize,” he said. “Customer service is what we are all about. We are here to serve. You must keep your eyes on what’s that customer service experience and because everybody in this county is paying taxes, how can we do that in a most efficient and effective way. The other debate I just don’t think that’s the most interesting part of the question and we’ve heard it before.”

The recorder’s office maintains property records such a deeds and mortgages and probate documents. The county recorder, as registrar of titles, examines documents to make sure they meet legal requirements for transfers. The auditor/treasurer’s office handles the county’s accounting and investments, calculates property taxes and collects taxes, handles licences, coordinates vital statistics like birth and marriage records, and handles elections.

Houle’s proposal would break up the auditor/treasurer’s office putting property records and taxpayer services in land services and putting the accounting and finance under administrative services along with vital statistics and elections.

In Houle’s proposal the county would have four departments — community services, land services, transportation services and administrative services. An alternative name suggested for administrative services was “internal and resident services.”

Houle is convinced there is a net financial gain of about $110,000 with this change.

But Recorder Kathy Ludenia and Auditor-Treasurer Laureen Borden both questioned the cost savings.

The two elected department heads said they first learned of the proposal after a brief meeting Friday and with the Veterans Day holiday had little time to prepare a response or gather research regarding costs and comparison with other counties.

Borden urged county commissioners to really think about the issue.

“It would be a total dismantling of my office,” Borden said. “I’m not sure it would serve the public any better. I think we have very good service now. I feel strongly about the loss of an elected office.

“I think it’s important for the people to have a chance to vote for the people in that office.”

Borden said the elected officials are responsible for their ultimate bosses — the taxpayers.

“We know we are working for the taxpayers and know they have limited funds,” Borden said. “I do like to think they are getting good value for the money.”

Borden has served as county treasurer since 1986 and was elected to combined auditor/treasurer office in 2010. Ludenia was first elected in 1987.

“The idea of losing an elected office is something that takes a lot of thought,” Ludenia told commissioners. “When Mr. Houle says you can save $100,000 by doing this — it’s just not going to happen.”

Ludenia pointed to the annual salary of an average director’s position in the county at $93,000. Borden’s annual wage for 2012 was $85,348. Ludenia’s was $75,316.

In 2012, appointed department Human Resources Director Tamra Laska made $87,521, Land Services Director Mark Liedl made $95,551, Highway Engineer Tim Bray made $90,797 and Houle made $118,135.

In other consolidated offices, such as the county’s land services department, Ludenia said middle managers are making about $60,000 a year. With middle managers in place in the proposed reorganization, Ludenia said the cost savings would be closer to $9,000.

Board Chairman Doug Houge said cost savings aren’t the only goal and the county wants to serve residents as well.

“We’re not acting on this today so there is time,” Houge said.

Commissioner Phil Trusty said the board heard some of the same speeches two years ago and also with combining land services. While there have been hiccups, Trusty said it seems to be working.

“If it’s not, you should be right here telling us,” Trusty said to the gallery, which was largely filled by staff members.

As for the Friday afternoon notice, Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom said there is a kind of a shock to that but these conversations have to start some place. She referred to this conversation as an opening salvo or a book prologue. Commissioner Paul Thiede said it was more like the first manuscript submission to a publisher with the prologue further down the line.

“It’s a big idea,” Thiede said. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at the manuscript.”

Borden said they weren’t against change. She said: “We want to make sure change is for the better and not the worse.”

No matter what direction the county board takes, Borden and Ludenia would fill out their four-year terms which are up in 2015.

In 2010, Crow Wing County commissioners voted to combine the auditor and treasurer offices, eliminating one elected position. Voters had the option for a reverse referendum via a petition so they could have a say in the matter. But a petition, which had to be completed in 30 days and get 10 percent of voters who cast ballots in the previous election or 3,530 eligible voters, failed to reach needed numbers.

Houle said the county saved $140,000 by combining the auditor and treasurer’s offices and the sky didn’t fall. Concern about removing the elected official he said was a silly little argument

If this early effort has traction, Crow Wing County elected officials would be reduced to the five county board members, county attorney and sheriff. Houle said there isn’t a model in the state eliminating the elected attorney or sheriff and he didn’t intend to suggest that change.

RENEE RICHARDSON, senior reporter, may be reached at 855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Dispatchbizbuzz.

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Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
(218) 855-5852
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