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Commissioners offer help to legislators

We are part of The Trust Project.

By Jeffrey Pieters

jpieters@postbulletin.com

The Olmsted County Board's annual sit-down with local state legislators is customarily a chance for county officials to ask for help in the coming legislative session.

But at the outset of this year's meeting, held Tuesday at the city-county Government Center in Rochester, board members extended their own offer of assistance.

They offered to share data, testify before legislative committees or demonstrate any of Olmsted County's best practices in human services, public health or law enforcement -- if that will help deliver funds or other help to southeastern Minnesota.

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"We'll drop what we're doing and come up and testify, whatever," said board Chairman Ken Brown. "I think we can help."

All six Rochester-area legislators attended the two-hour, early-morning meeting where, over coffee and doughnuts, they were presented with Olmsted County's long menu of requests for the coming session, scheduled to begin March 1.

Requests include:

$2 million for a third burner to increase the capacity and electric-generating capabilities of the county's Waste-to-Energy facility.

$1.77 million to develop a regional emergency safety training center in southeast Rochester.

Secure, long-term funding for road- and bridge-building, whether from a constitutional amendment dedicating license fees to transportation, an increased gas tax, authorization of a local "wheel tax" or some combination of those.

Preserving the county's condemnation powers for transportation projects.

A state guarantee to absorb the costs of maintaining the "backbone" of a new statewide, 800-megahertz communications system. If shifted to local governments, annual costs of $200 to $300 per radio would "stop the project in the outstate," said Sheriff Steven Borchardt.

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Thoughtful consideration before passing any new criminal legislation. Olmsted County's courts are already overloaded with cases, said county Attorney Ray Schmitz.

Approving interactive televised appearances for certain court hearings, which would reduce the county's costs of transporting prisoners to court.

Relaxing service mandates for which state funding is insufficient or nonexistent. Or, as board member Mike Podulke suggested, recrafting certain mandates to specify outcomes, rather than processes to follow. The county would have a greater incentive, then, to be innovative.

"We certainly prefer carrots over sticks," Podulke said. "Sticks end up not hurting us but the people we serve."

A lot of hurt will be dished out, county officials said, by federal spending cuts outlined in Congress' Budget Reconciliation Act. The county, which provides many mandated services on behalf of the federal government, will send a $1.25-million bill for those services to Washington, D.C., at the end of the first quarter, and "our assumption is it won't be paid," said county Finance Director Bob Bendzick.

State Sen. David Senjem and other legislators said they would send letters or a co-signed letter to Congressional representatives urging legal language changes that would restore at least some of the funding.

The cuts threaten to undo a working infrastructure that took a decade or more to build and which, thanks to its innovative approach, "actually saves the federal government money," Brown said.

Without the early intervention the county provides, more people who are mentally ill or face other problems will wind up turning to institutional care or other more costly forms of aid, county officials said.

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