Scott and Dakota counties are adopting differing postures to achieve some of their goals as the legislative session begins.
None of them are pleased. But the leaders of Scott and Dakota counties are approaching the legislative session that begins in earnest today with strikingly different attitudes.
Scott County is vowing that it won't allow a repeat of 2003, with local governments forced to raise their own taxes to help the state escape from its budget troubles.
"If you cut a dollar, we're likely to cut a service as well," Jon Ulrich, of Savage, the board's new chairman, said Tuesday as his colleagues debated their legislative priorities. "We're going to challenge you on that."
Dave Unmacht, in his second-to-last meeting as the county administrator, urged the board to put up its dukes.
"We should throw caution to the wind," he said. "There is no wiggle room left [in the budgets]. It's OK to be more aggressive in our message."
Their counterparts in Dakota County aren't issuing threats. Instead, they are pleading for an end to the jolting cuts that strike when the state budget runs into trouble. And they think persuading the Legislature to create a new council might help that happen.
An advisory council on state-local relations, modeled after a group that existed in the mid-1980s, would focus on balancing financial responsibilities for state-mandated programs and services. Dakota commissioners said that balance has tipped too far in the direction of counties and local property taxes.
A recent "unallotment," or cancellation, of state aid to local governments by Gov. Tim Pawlenty cost Dakota County $2.3 million, and that's just one example of the state-local partnership gone awry, said Kathleen Gaylord, the board chairwoman from South St. Paul.
"We've got to get them in a conversation and tell them that this can't continue," Gaylord said. "We're trying to find a way, a mechanism, to get us thinking about how to better partner to solve problems."
Scott's commissioners also are asking for a new approach, one that doesn't hit them with jarring cuts every few years.
Effect of Clean Water
Despite the budget woes -- the state has a budget deficit of $4.8 billion -- both counties do also have their wish lists.
One reason for that: The odd truth is that even as cuts get made, large sums of money are going to be handed out to someone. Prominent among them are the proceeds from the Clean Water amendment, passed by voters across the state in November, and a proposed federal stimulus package that could run into the hundreds of billions nationally.
Scott County, for instance, has polluted water and considers itself a great candidate for Clean Water funds -- not to mention the other elements of the amendment, such as parks, trails, arts and history.
Scott is also seeking:
• $2.2 million to complete its public safety training facility near Jordan.
• $3 million to develop Spring Lake Regional Park, acquired in the late 1960s but still dormant.
• $500,000 to study the feasibility of major transit additions to an increasingly traffic-choked Hwy. 169.
Legislators representing districts in Scott County have cautioned local officials that, with a multi-billion-dollar deficit, they are not going to be in a great position to deliver on goodies this session.
'There may be opportunities'
But Lisa Kohner, the county staffer who works with the county's lobbyist, told board members it's still worth reminding lawmakers of the county's needs. "It's not a bonding year," she said, "but with the prospect of federal stimulus monies, there may be opportunities" for funds under the banner of creating economic activity.
The possibility of stimulus money spurred Dakota County to tack the Cedar Avenue transitway, a bus-rapid-transit project, onto to the wish list. The first phase of the project is still short $12 million.
Another Cedar Avenue project, expanding the stretch north of McAndrews Road from two lanes to three, also made the list. But Jack Ditmore, the county's director of operations, management and budget, said the price tag for that request is uncertain until the Minnesota Department of Transportation completes a study and makes recommendations.
David Peterson • 952-882-9023 Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056