ST. PAUL -- Crow Wing County leaders could have taken pleasure in the fact that no one showed up at last December's truth-in-taxation hearing to complain about their property tax bill or the county budget.
But no one showed up at all, and that left county board chairman Dewey Tautges plenty frustrated.
At a time when Crow Wing has few dollars to spare, the county spent $19,000 in postage and untold hours notifying property owners of the meeting. After all, state law requires it.
"It's kind of tough to talk to people when nobody's there," Tautges said. "It's $19,000 spent and nobody got any benefit out of it. It's $19,000 you can put somewhere else."
Tautges has lots of company among county, city and school district officials who want to see the law go. And they'd like to throw out dozens of other state directives, commonly called mandates, while they're at it.
With state assistance to local governments sure to fall this year, local leaders are seeking relief from mandates as something of a consolation prize.
Lists of rules and laws the local leaders want repealed or amended are circulating at the Capitol. They cover everything from the kind of grass seed that can be planted in roadside ditches to the length of time drunks must be held in detox to where meeting minutes are published.
So far, legislators haven't rushed to clip the strings attached to state dollars. And the executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties isn't getting very good vibes.
In fact, Jim Mulder said his group is working just as hard to keep state lawmakers from shifting new obligations to the local level as they grapple with a $4.23 billion projected deficit.
"If you can't spend money and you want to do things, sometimes it's easier to spend somebody else's money," Mulder said.
To reduce state costs and free up beds in state prisons nearing capacity, for example, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and some legislators want county jails to take in short-term felons.
Local governments and school districts are extremely dependent on the state. Cities, townships and counties were to receive nearly $5 billion in direct aid and tax credits in the current two-year budget cycle, according to the Department of Finance. State aid to schools topped $11 billion in the same period, the department reported.
But with the money comes expectations.
Among other things, state law requires schools to earmark a small portion of their aid and time for staff development and to devote a set amount to lowering class sizes. The state's 87 counties must administer health and welfare programs, run courts, organize recycling programs and carry out other prescribed functions.
Local officials have had only modest success in easing burdens.
A provision attached to a House budget bill would allow counties to cremate bodies of indigent people when they die instead of requiring a burial.
The Senate voted 64-0 on Tuesday to get rid of a requirement that government bodies hire professional archaeologicalists when someone suspects an archaeological or historic site on public lands or waters. Under the bill, they could hold off until such a site is predicted to exist based on scientific investigation.
Wider-reaching measures haven't made much headway.
Rep. Peter Adolphson, R-Minnetonka, will probably have to wait until next year for a vote on his bill to give local governments permission to post notices and meeting minutes on the Internet instead of putting them in the newspaper, saving the cost of advertising.
"In this day and age you can use alternative methods," Adolphson argues. "This is how society is going."
The Minnesota Newspaper Association is fighting the bill. Mark Anfinson, the association's attorney, said the change wouldn't save much for governments but would greatly reduce the amount of information people have about local proceedings.
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