By Timothy J. Houle
Crow Wing County Administrator
Kurt Martin’s recent guest editorial about government raised good points about the need to control spending, but ignored the real, substantial, and historic cuts Crow Wing County has achieved in recent years. Mr. Martin’s discourse is a great illustration of Paul Harvey’s old adage about “the rest of the story.”
I do agree with Mr. Martin that the county’s current public employee union contracts provide automatic pay increases through a step and grade compensation system that is not tied to employee performance. These automatic annual pay increases occur despite economic realities and outstrip market rates of pay increases in the private sector. Unmentioned by Mr. Martin however, is the fact that Crow Wing County is attempting to end these annual step increases. In fact, we are at the bargaining table right now with all of the county’s union partners delivering that very same message. Furthermore, the county is currently being sued by its unions for withholding step increases that our union partners believe they are entitled to receive. The county’s position for quite some time has been that the existing step and grade system that delivers automatic increases for employees without regard to merit or an employees’ contribution and results toward advancing the county’s mission on behalf of our customers is unsupportable and unsustainable.
In the same breath, however, I also want to point out how proud I am of the efforts county employees make each and every day to making our organization better. During the throes of the economic crisis, Crow Wing County has transformed itself into a highly nimble, much more creative, mission-driven, customer-focused organization that is delivering real results for citizens every day. You need not take my word for it. The National Association of Counties just awarded Crow Wing County not one, but two outstanding achievement awards – selecting Crow Wing County from among all the counties in the entire nation. This is on the heels of the Association of Minnesota Counties doing the same within the past year as well. These awards are given for innovative, effective, and prudent use of limited taxpayer dollars to deliver excellent customer service. The kind of results they are awarded for — results that Mr. Martin failed to acknowledge — include:
• Crow Wing County’s levy for 2012, the amount Crow Wing County collects in property taxes from county property owners for county services, went down $845,039, or 2.37 percent. This is the largest reduction in the county’s levy in recorded history. Simply put, we can find no record of any reduction that would exceed that in the county’s entire history!
• From 2008 to 2012, inflation has increased by 7.4 percent yet the county’s levy grew by only 2.08 percent, compared to levy increases of 64 percent during the previous four-year period. This is an extraordinary achievement of the current county board — worthy of national achievement awards — but ignored in Mr. Martin’s assault on public employee union automatic pay increases.
• Crow Wing County’s budget for 2012 did go up by 4.4 percent, but it wasn’t due to local tax dollars. Simply put, we successfully competed for federal funds for local road improvement projects. In other words, we were able to improve our roads while reducing the local tax levy for our highway department by 3.26 percent.
• Crow Wing County continues to be in the bottom 10 counties out of the 87 counties in Minnesota in its property tax rate.
• Crow Wing County’s Board of Commissioners and Senior managers voluntarily agreed to freeze their pay for 2009, 2010, and 2011.
• There are fewer county employees today than there was in 2002. Since its peak in 2007, we have 38 fewer full-time positions, a reduction of over 9 percent in the county’s workforce.
• These accomplishments have all occurred during a period in which our state and federal aids have been cut to levels not seen since 2001
We are, I believe, justifiably proud of our accomplishments. Yet more needs to be done. The sunset of the State of Minnesota’s Market Value Homestead Credit program, a program in which the State essentially paid a portion of homeowners’ property tax bills, also went away during this same period, which ate up more than what cities, townships, school districts and the county achieved in spending cuts throughout Crow Wing County last year. Had Crow Wing County not taken the dramatic steps it has taken to cut spending, the situation for homeowners would have been that much worse.
As we enter into yet another season of political battle, it is inevitable that people will arrange facts to suit their interests. In Mr. Martin’s editorial, I agree that we must change the way we compensate public employee union staff to better ensure we are paying competitive, but market-driven, performance-based wages. Where we part company, however, is his omission of facts demonstrating the bold actions and unprecedented progress Crow Wing County has achieved in reducing government spending. And that, as Paul Harvey used to say, is the rest of the story.