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Get it together: MN county, city begin talks to combine forces, save money

By   /   September 10, 2013  /   No Comments

By Tom Steward  | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau

COUNTY BOARD CHAIR MADSEN: “We must examine and thoroughly evaluate the various opportunities to ensure the best value for our taxpayer dollars.”

WILLMAR — It’s a shout-out heard across Kandiyohi County in west central Minnesota, a blunt letter double-daring local government officials to start from scratch in creating a new model for government.

Cut bureaucracy, trim budgets and combine operations to save taxpayers money, the letter suggests, in the process reshaping the way local governments in a state with 87 counties and hundreds of cities deliver services.

The unusual summons was a product of the latest Kandiyohi County Board meeting. It urges elected officials to own up to their responsibilities to a rural area with a rapidly aging population and uncertain tax base.

“We must examine and thoroughly evaluate the various opportunities to ensure the best value for our taxpayer dollars,” Harlan Madsen, Kandiyohi County board chair, said in a letter unanimously endorsed by his fellow commissioners. “All local governments are facing a changing workforce, retirements, increased costs and demands, coupled with stable to shrinking resources. The status quo and simply maintaining is not appropriate nor realistic in an ever-changing world.”

Willmar Mayor Frank Yanish welcomed the sales pitch. Yanish previously called for the city of 20,000 to “look in every nook and cranny, under every rock, for ways to cooperate with our county and sister agencies.”

Willmar is the county seat.

SHARING: Kandiyohi County and Willmar already share some services but should “look in every nook and cranny, under every rock, for ways to cooperate” according to Mayor Frank Yanish.

“I would love to work with the county and save the taxpayers money, as much as we can,” said Yanish, whose 2014 budget proposed $228,000 in savings in areas he called “fluff.”  “I think we’re headed in the right direction in talking about it, I really do.”

Where to start?  Easy.

“We have a state highway department in Willmar, a county highway department and a city highway street department,” said Ron Christianson, a Willmar city council member. “Three different salt sheds for the wintertime for spreading salt and gravel. Now that’s kind of ridiculous. There should be one.”

Kandiyohi County a couple of years ago embarked on a systemwide redesign with the goal of consolidating departments, taking them from 27 to nine. The plan included ideas to increase efficiency with technology upgrades and attrition through retirements. With almost half of Kandiyohi County’s 44,000 residents, Willmar’s cooperation would help double down on those savings.

The city and county already share an economic development commission, a building inspector and some combined training and purchasing operations. Meantime, discussions continue over merging housing redevelopment authorities and the city and county assessors, who operate separate offices just blocks apart.

Recently, however, the Willmar council held off on making other changes, fueling Madsen’s determination to shake things up.

A 64-year-old dairy and crop farmer, Madsen shot off his letter without consultation, calling for a work group of council members and commissioners with divergent ideas to work with the city and county administrators and report back by the end of March 2014.

“The big driver of this is the aging population, the changing demographics and the host of things that come along with that that we have to deal with,” said Madsen. “It’s imperative that those discussions be held with good open minds and good commitments very frankly to look at consensus and solutions.”

Yanish has not officially accepted the offer, but he appears to be on board.

“You have to find out the best way to work it with the county and for the city and all involved. It’s a difficult thing to do, but we have to do it because there are some savings to be had.”

Contact Tom Steward at tom@watchdogminnesota.org



Tom Steward covers government waste, spending and policy issues in his home state of Minnesota. Also a documentary filmmaker and in-depth broadcast journalist, Tom's work has appeared on NPR, Animal Planet, WCCO-TV, WGBH-TV, PBS, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, KSTP-TV, CBC, among other outlets. Highlights include the fall of the Berlin Wall, a Peabody Award, the first footage in the wild of the endangered Sumatran tiger and rhino and countless individuals who shared their stories, big and small. Steward served as a communications strategist in the U.S. Senate before returning to reporting on issues and people often overlooked by other media.