By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — A day before Mankato civic leaders hit the state Capitol for their annual lobbying day, Blue Earth County officials arrived in St. Paul Tuesday to talk to lawmakers about everything from who should pay hospital bills for jail inmates to the need for state funds for fixing the Rapidan Dam.
The two-day lobbying trip, made in conjunction with a meeting of the Association of Minnesota Counties, was preceded by a Blue Earth County Board workshop where County Administrator Bob Meyer reviewed the legislative agenda and made sure commissioners were heading to the Capitol with a unified message.
At the top of the list was Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal to boost state aid to counties after years of falling or stagnant assistance from St. Paul. Under the governor’s budget, Blue Earth County would see its county program aid rise from $2.1 million to $2.6 million. The latter figure would get the county back to the level it was at in 2006.
County officials also will be making the case for a lasting fix for the recurring budget shortfalls the state has faced for the past decade, saying that a structurally balanced budget will ease the burden on property taxes that comes with cuts in state aid.
The commissioners and Meyer, who are slated to meet with six lawmakers whose districts include part of Blue Earth County, have a wish list that includes the following:
It doesn’t happen often but when an inmate at the Blue Earth County jail requires a stay in the hospital, the jail gets the bill. Legislation at the Capitol would make inmates eligible for Medical Assistance — pushing the cost on to state and federal budgets rather than hitting the jail with an unexpected and potentially budget-busting bill.
“The medical expense could easily be a six-figure bill,” Meyer said.
The county still takes a hit when an inmate is hospitalized because a custody officer has to be guarding the inmate 24 hours a day during the hospital stay. The jail already covers the cost of outpatient health care for inmates. If the legislation passes, counties would at least be spared the medical expense during a costly hospital stay.
“It’s just a common-sense bill,” Commissioner Vance Stuehrenberg said.
Local governments have long complained about paying state sales tax on the purchases they make — noting the inefficiency of a local government collecting extra property taxes to cover the cost of paying a sales tax to the state government.
Blue Earth County pays an estimated $330,000 in sales tax each year, Meyer said.
Bills have been introduced to exempt local governments from sales tax for all purchases and also for specific purchases, such as new radio systems being purchased by law enforcement, fire and emergency response agencies statewide.
The county is making a pitch for more road funding in general, along with a specific appropriation through the state bonding bill for the aging Rapidan Dam.
A total of $2.4 million is being sought for renovations and improvements to the dam across the Blue Earth River, which is now more than a century old. More money for roads also will be encouraged with county officials noting the payoff that is coming with the federal-state-local investment in a new interchange on Highway 14 on Mankato’s east side.
“We’ve seen it firsthand with the Wal-Mart distribution center,” Meyer said. “That investment does pay off.”
The fee counties can charge for administering driver’s licenses needs to be increased from $5 to $8 or more, according to the county. Licensing staff have calculated that the cost of providing the licenses exceeds the reimbursement rate, which has been stuck at $5 since 2005, Meyer said.
County probation departments across Minnesota also have been neglected in the past decade, said Blue Earth County Community Corrections Department Director Josh Milow. The increase in state funding for county probation services has risen less than 1 percent in the last 10 years, even as the state corrections department has seen its budget rise 40 percent.
Milow notes that Minnesota relies much more on probation than other states in meting out criminal penalties, something that saves the state substantial money on prisons. Wisconsin, for instance, has 23,000 serving prison terms compared to 9,000 in Minnesota, he said.
But when it comes to supporting county probation services, the state has not kept up.
“It’s easy to say, let the counties pick up the slack,” Milow said.