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Should Wadena County dissolve itself? One county commissioner suggested just that at a recent meeting

During the recent Wadena County Truth In Taxation meeting, one county commissioner suggested Wadena County should dissolve itself and become absorbed into its neighbors as rising wages, increased costs and mandated services have caused taxes to become disproportionately high compared to neighboring counties. Can a county actually dissolve itself?

wadenaMap.jpg
Highway map of Wadena County, 2021.
Contributed / MnDOT
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WADENA — During a recent Wadena County Truth In Taxation meeting on Nov. 28, as many residents gathered and voiced their opinions about the county's preliminary 10.37% property tax levy, one county commissioner casually suggested Wadena County should dissolve itself.

"We've discussed (joint powers agreements) numerous times, but we never moved forward with it," said Jon Kangas, Wadena County Commissioner for District 5. "We've discussed combining our public health department and our human services, and then someone came out with a study that said we aren't going to save any money, and I kind of disagree with that."

Jon Kangas.jpg
Jon Kangas
Contributed photo

Kangas also said Wadena County pays about $13 million in annual employee wages, which is more than the preliminary $10.9 million that would be raised by the 2023 county property tax levy. More than 28% of Wadena County's increase in its human services budget was due to higher wages .

"Every dollar in property tax throughout our whole county does not even cover our salaries and benefits and that's why, if there are things we can cut out, we've got to cut them out," he said.

In total, Wadena County receives about two-thirds of its $30 million operating budget through state and federal grants, and the remaining third is funded by the county's property tax levy.

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Kangas lives near Menahga, in the northern part of Wadena County, and said, "you could take the northern six townships, like Sebeka and north, and they could easily go into Hubbard County."

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He added that a lot of the people in the Menahga area do most of their business in Park Rapids, which resides in Hubbard County, because it's closer.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau , the population of Wadena County is 14,177. Its neighbors, Hubbard and Otter Tail counties have populations of 21,715 and 60,046, respectively. Additionally, Wadena County's average household income is about $46,000 per year, while Hubbard and Otter Tail counties have average incomes of $58,000 and $59,000, respectively.

Julie Ring, executive director for the Association of Minnesota Counties, said she has never heard of a Minnesota county "dissolving" itself.

"We have lots of very small counties with different challenges of all sorts," said Ring. She added, she is aware of Wadena County's challenges with rising wages and mandated staffing requirements.

Ring suggested cooperative service agreements with neighboring counties would be a good place to start to try and save money.

"I think the challenge in Minnesota is, because the counties serve as the administrative arm of the state, we're responsible for carrying out so many state mandates that are required to be the same, regardless of the size of the county, regardless of the tax capacity, so it is challenging for a whole bunch of different counties for a whole bunch of different reasons," she said.

Ring pointed out that Hennepin County has challenges based on the size of its population, whereas, some of the northern counties are "sprawling" with land and very few population centers, but the application of services is required to be the same.

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"One thing that counties do all the time ... is work through joint power arrangements with their neighbors," she said. "With cities, with other counties ... health and human services is a very common one and it is usually the biggest budget ... and a number of counties have joint powers, multi-county human services departments as a way to kind of hit the scale."

In 2012, the Office of the Legislative Auditor produced a report on the consolidation of local governments in Minnesota. The report found Minnesota has more than 2,700 local units of government that can all range in size and scope. Among smaller jurisdictions with capital-intensive services, the audit report states, "there are opportunities to increase collaboration and consolidation among local governments."

It also recommends that local officials "should consider and pursue such opportunities."

Counties may consolidate under the same process as municipalities; however, any proposed consolidation would be a "large undertaking," due to the lack of state experience with the issue. The measure would also require a large investment and ballot initiatives that voters could, ultimately, reject.

The report recommends local governments should enter into cooperative service agreements and make incremental boundary adjustments as the "preferred" methods to reconfigure services.

Lead Multimedia Reporter for the Detroit Lakes Tribune and the Perham Focus.
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