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To vote or not to vote

In a building just steps from the entrance of the Crow Wing County Fair, a group of concerned residents are asking fairgoers to sign a petition against a recent county board decision they say is infringing on the rights of voters.

Ron Brusven (left) and Daryl Bahma talk with voters at the Crow Wing County Fair about signing a petition protesting the county board's decision to make the auditor-treasurer and recorder positions appointive instead of elective. The group behind the petition must collect nearly 4,000 signatures to force a referendum on the issue. Chelsey Perkins/Brainerd Dispatch
Ron Brusven (left) and Daryl Bahma talk with voters at the Crow Wing County Fair about signing a petition protesting the county board's decision to make the auditor-treasurer and recorder positions appointive instead of elective. The group behind the petition must collect nearly 4,000 signatures to force a referendum on the issue. Chelsey Perkins/Brainerd Dispatch

In a building just steps from the entrance of the Crow Wing County Fair, a group of concerned residents are asking fairgoers to sign a petition against a recent county board decision they say is infringing on the rights of voters.

The group, calling themselves Crow Wing County Concerned Voters, must acquire the signatures of 10 percent of the county's registered voters by Aug. 23 to force a referendum on whether the county auditor-treasurer and county recorder posts should remain on the ballot.

Daryl Bahma of Brainerd and Ron Brusven of Brainerd are two of the concerned county residents leading the charge.

"We don't want the voter out of the equation," Bahma said. "They claim they're going to save money by doing this, but that's a bunch of malarkey. Anytime you have bureaucrats run something, it costs you more. It might not cost more initially, but in the end, it's going to cost more."

Reorganization drives move toward appointment

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In June, the county board unanimously voted to convert the auditor-treasurer and recorder positions from elected posts to appointed ones, as part of a broader initiative - proposed by County Administrator Tim Houle - to reorganize county government. This reorganization, Houle said, will improve customer service and save county taxpayers between $250,000 and $400,000 each year by allowing as many as five full-time equivalent positions to remain unfilled.

Reorganizing in this manner will require uncoupling the recorder's and auditor-treasurer's offices from the statutory requirements associated with the posts' elective nature, a move 33 other Minnesota counties - representing 75 percent of the state's population - have undertaken.

The current structure of county government is organized around statutorily required duties assigned to the elected offices. Effectively, this separates duties related to land among four areas of county government: the recorder's office, which records deeds; the auditor-treasurer's office, which maintains the property tax system; the property valuation and classification office, which values properties for taxation purposes; and environmental services, which issues permits for improving properties.

Houle outlined scenarios to the county board to illustrate what customers face should they require land-related services. In one example, a customer has just purchased a new home and wants to build an addition. To accomplish this, the customer would need to first visit the recorder's office to ensure the deed is recordable, then go to the auditor-treasurer's office to transfer the deed. Next, the customer would return to the recorder's office to pay recording fees, then go to the property valuation and classification office to complete a homestead application, and finally, a fifth stop within the county complex would be at environmental services to apply for a building permit.

The resolution approved by the county board will move all land-related processes to a land services customer service counter. The accounting and finance division and elections responsibilities of the auditor-treasurer would be moved to a newly formed department called administrative services. This would downsize the number of departments within the county to four: community services, land services, transportation services and administrative services.

The duties required by statute would still be performed by the county, Houle has stated, but the board would have flexibility concerning whom is tasked with performing them. This would mean eliminating the titles of auditor-treasurer and recorder.

Deborah Erickson, auditor-treasurer, and Mark Liedl, recorder, who were each elected in 2014, have previously expressed support for the change.

A clearly defined process for making such a change requires several steps before implementation, beginning with a bill passed through the state Legislature and signed by the governor allowing the county to move forward. Then a supermajority of the county board must approve the change following a public hearing. The next phase - which is in effect - is a 60-day waiting period during which residents have the opportunity to petition the board's actions. Should the petition gather enough signatures, the issue must go before the general public in the form of a ballot question this November.

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A sacred right

For Bahma, Brusven and other concerned residents, county officials' claims of savings and streamlining are no match for their drive to protect the will of the people.

"Our county saw fit to make some of these positions to be elected; to change this now would remove the will of the people to control government and produce more bureaucracy," states a handout available at the petition booth. "Government should be controlled by the people. The people are the only safe depository of power."

Laureen Borden, who served as treasurer and auditor-treasurer for 28 years, has been vocal in her opposition to the proposal. Borden told the county board during the public hearing in June she valued the fact that she was elected and felt she was put in the office by the people.

"During the tax collection seasons I worked day and night, sometimes with my husband or other volunteers to get the job done in the most cost saving manner," Borden wrote in a July 22 letter to the Brainerd Dispatch editor. "You were the ones interviewing me for the job and I felt I needed to serve you well."

By noon Tuesday, the petition had garnered an additional 40 signatures from concerned voters at the fair. This is on top of the 500-700 signatures Bahma said he's already collected. More than 3,000 signatures are still needed to successfully challenge the board's decision.

Among those new signatures were both those with knowledge about the change and those who were unaware of the effort to remove the posts from the ballot.

Dewey and Joan Krueger of Merrifield said they were aware of the county board's decision through coverage in the Brainerd Dispatch and felt compelled to sign the petition.

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"I don't feel it's right what they're doing to the voters in the county," Dewey Krueger said. "The voters should have the right to make some of the decisions."

Eli Eliseuson of Brainerd said he believed the county board's decision went against "the spirit of the entire nation."

"That's what we are, a government by the people for the people, even at the lowest level," Eliseuson said. "You take that away and we've got what we've got in Washington right now."

Steve Barrows of Baxter said maintaining the elective offices creates checks and balances that wouldn't exist should the county go through with the reorganization.

"I can get my information from two different people that I elected, so that I'm not being led by one person deciding how they want to put their position for those two offices out there," Barrows said. "If somebody gets appointed and we combine two offices, we now no longer have a balance in my mind. It's one person putting out the rhetoric, and I think the voters lose on that."

Houle said by phone Tuesday he would support the petition himself if the only issue at play was whether residents could vote for the two offices. But, he said, the choice to support or not support the reorganization is not one that exists "in a vacuum."

"The issue here is, should we improve the service - do we have to keep sending county residents from county office to county office when they buy and sell property - and should we reduce the tax levy by $250,000 a year, or should we keep voting for these offices," Houle said.

The auditor-treasurer and recorder do ... what again?

Not everyone who visited the petition booth Tuesday chose to add their signature to the list. After listening to Brusven explain the reason behind the petition, Carol Mills of Crosby told him she would "have to think about it."

"I think if they were appointed by the county board, you might get better qualified people, because these people are going to have to show they have an education and know the job," Mills said. "We as voters sometimes vote for the person we know."

Mills said she voted in the last election but could not remember whether she selected candidates for the auditor-treasurer and recorder positions. She added she did not know what either of these positions do within the county government structure.

"I think not enough of us know what their work is," Mills said. "We do know the sheriff protects us ... but to me, that's just the person you pay your taxes to. What kinds of qualifications does she need to be elected?"

Mills wasn't the only one who was unclear on what the auditor-treasurer and recorder do. Of those voters who spoke with the Dispatch Tuesday, one person could clearly define the roles of each elected office. For the record: the auditor-treasurer oversees the accounting, financial, elections, tax collection and business licensing functions within the county; the recorder reviews and accepts real estate documents for filing and maintains a permanent repository of recorded documents.

In January when the reorganization concept was first introduced, Liedl pointed to this confusion as a sign the issue does not rise to a level a majority of voters are passionate about. He said while campaigning for the recorder post, most voters he encountered could not explain what the county recorder does.

In the voters' hands

Houle said should the petition be successful, the potential savings from the reorganization will be delayed by at least a year or indefinitely, should the subsequent referendum see success as well.

"That's a significant sum of money for us, so that has direct implications on the tax rate for 2016," Houle said.

The fate of Houle's proposal now rests in the hands of Crow Wing County voters, who are tasked with deciding whether they believe in the county's vision or whether they'd like to continue hiring the county auditor-treasurer and recorder every four years.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Related Topics: CROW WING COUNTYCROW WING COUNTY BOARDCROW WING COUNTY FAIR
Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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