As budget battles continue to plague local and state government in Minnesota, and as the state government shutdown of 2011 is a fresh, albeit unpleasant, memory, let’s hope that 2012 is a year of serious discussion about new ways of providing government services.
The Winona Daily News has highlighted several interesting stories in recent days that reinforce the need for dynamic change.
Caused in part by challenges with ever-decreasing Local Government Aid in Minnesota, the tourist community of Lanesboro will have a new half-cent local sales tax beginning Jan. 1 as a way of having tourists pay a larger share of the local services they use.
The goal is to ease the local tax burden while funding such capital projects as a hydroelectric dam — a concept that voters approved during a referendum.
In Houston County, the new jail with 84 beds often houses only 15 to 20 inmates.
Statewide, according to a report by Minnesota Public Radio, the Department of Corrections estimates roughly a third of the state’s 10,000 jail beds are empty.
When you consider that 25 county jails have been built or remodeled in Minnesota during the past five years, it doesn’t seem to make much sense.
It makes you wonder why, with technology so pervasive and inexpensive, there hasn’t been more discussion of regional jail facilities, instead of having one in each county.
Goodhue County Sheriff Scott McNurlin has pulled together officials of southeast Minnesota counties to discuss collaboration on projects such as merged emergency dispatch centers.
It’s long overdue.
In Lewiston, the city isn’t hiring a replacement for its former city administrator.
Instead, it is contracting for the service with Community and Economic Development Associates — at a projected savings of $25,000 to $30,000 per year. Lewiston is the 10th community in Winona and Fillmore counties where the organization provides services.
Collaboration. Contracted services. New ways of looking at government services.
These all bear scrutiny.
In fact, we should challenge the assumptions we have about how many layers of government we truly need.
Do we need as many counties, towns and school districts?
Minnesota Public Radio reported that Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, said one suggestion is eliminating township government and cutting the number of counties in half.
When you consider that county borders were drawn to assure that you could get to the county seat and back home via buggy before dark, it does beg the question.
Too often, we’ve seen state government pass along unfunded problems to local government and schools — and then, with tremendous audacity, scold the locals when they raise money to pay for the solutions.
Taxpayers, of course, don’t care which pocket the money comes out of. They’re smart enough to know that when their left pocket and their right pocket are empty, there’s a problem.
Let’s hope we can begin to have substantive, sustainable discussions about the services we need and the best ways of collaboratively, efficiently delivering them.