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Becoming more efficient and fiscally responsible (09/21/2011)
From: Deb Roschen

Wabasha County Commissioner

I filed for the office of County Commissioner because I was troubled over the financial direction of Wabasha County Government. In 2004 our net tax levy was $6.9 million. In 2009, (just five short years later) our net tax levy had nearly doubled to $11.9 million. Wabasha County jumped from being ranked #36 out of 87 counties to #73 in per capita taxation. Clearly our leadership was taking us in the wrong direction at lightning speed.

Upon being elected, I felt strongly that our county government would need to enter a new paradigm in structure and function to continue providing essential services at a cost the taxpayers could afford. I had a previous experience with strategic planning and found it to be an effective exercise to identify ideas and evaluate priorities. I also believed strategic planning would be a great tool to help the new board begin working together on common goals and objectives. I referred Dr. Rick Carlson to our administrator as I had worked with him in the past and had a positive experience with his ability to draw out ideas and keep the group focused and organized throughout the process. Our administrator also had some other planners that he introduced to the Board for consideration. Let me be clear, on the day Dr. Carlson presented his services to the Board I fully disclosed to everyone that I knew Dr. Carlson and we had worked together before.

On the day the Board was to select which strategic planner we wanted to work with, I was cautious as to not influence the board’s decision in any way. It is public record that I did not make or second the motion to hire Dr. Rick Carlson as our strategic planner. The motion passed unanimously without any influence from me.

Looking back I wish I would have never referred Dr. Carlson to our administrator for consideration. Not because of his performance, abilities or professionalism, but because I am embarrassed and disturbed by how Dr. Carlson was treated and undermined throughout the strategic planning process. I have now come to understand why there was such resistance to Dr. Carlson and to the final outcome of the planning process. Strategic Planning is a threat to the status quo and to individuals who are eating well off the taxpayer’s plate.

When I took my oath of office, I was excited to work with my fellow board members to lead Wabasha County to become a smaller and more efficient government. Unfortunately, my rose colored glassed prevented me from seeing that not everyone was committed to redesigning government in order to make it smaller, more efficient and in balance with the private sector. The last couple months have required me to take off those glasses and recognize this conflict for what it really is. In addition, I have experienced the destructive measures some people will take in order to oppose or destroy those who don’t share their philosophy.

There were 70 ideas that were generated as a result of the strategic planning process. These ideas came from staff as well as the commissioners. Of those 70 ideas, I supported further investigation, if practical, all but one. Commissioner Norman supported 66 ideas, Commissioner Hall supported 55 ideas, Commissioner Harms supported 69 ideas and Commissioner Wobbe supported 44 ideas. This level of board support for a majority of the ideas brought forward is tremendous. The Wabasha County Board now has the task to investigate and research a wide array of ideas that have potential to help us fulfill our vision of leading Wabasha County Government to become more efficient, simple and fiscally responsible.

One of the ideas identified was to change our structure from an Administrator to a County Coordinator. Even though this idea has not yet been fully developed it has received great criticism from defenders of the status quo launching into an all out personal attack on the three commissioners who are willing to take a serious look at a new change in our management structure. Over the past weeks I have read all kinds of incorrect or false reporting as well as personal quotes from staff about how this structural change would give the board more power. Really; how would anyone know this? There has not even been a County Coordinator job description drafted at this point, so how could anyone accurately make this claim?

I have personally contacted every county in Minnesota that is functioning under a County Coordinator style of management and requested their specific job descriptions. These descriptions are all a part of public data and are available for anyone to view by contacting our county attorney’s office. Reading through the various job descriptions there is one constant that impressed me greatly – no Coordinator job description is the same. Each county has designed the position to meet their specific needs. Some Coordinators have the same responsibilities as an Administrator while others differ a bit. With all this information to consider, our Board will need to take our time to diligently research and consider what structural options would help us meet our vision of becoming more efficient, simple and fiscally responsible.

In the meantime, I would like to correct all the false accusations as to the reason why the administrator position is being looked at. Personally, I simply do not believe the taxpayers in our small county of 22,000 people can afford to keep this position as it currently functions. The current salary for this position is $92,887. Benefits are an additional $25,692. Salary and benefits total nearly $118,600 per year. Now things get even more concerning when we consider in less than three years this position will have an annual base salary of $100,996 plus the additional cost of benefits! These generous wages come at a time when our economy has forced lay-offs, wage freezes, greater cost sharing of benefits, and restructuring in the private sector. It is the responsibility of the commissioners to look at those measures that can be taken to keep our levy in balance with what the taxpayers of Wabasha County can afford.

Unfortunately, while the commissioners were focused on doing our job, some wanted to prevent us from further considering the potential benefits from a government restructure. Remember when I said there have been destructive measures underway by those who do not share the same fiscal principles as some of the commissioners? As a result, attorneys have become involved in order to potentially impede us from moving forward on some of our ideas. In addition to these legal obstacles, there are those who want to protect the status quo in Wabasha County Government to the point they have initiated an all out personal attack on three commissioners.

The media has also been very instrumental in assisting this movement by deceiving and misrepresenting the board’s efforts. Instead of focusing on the merits of commissioners doing their best to find a new and innovative approach to governing, the media seems infatuated with questioning the integrity of elected officials who are diligently working to keep their campaign promises to the taxpayers.

I understand that drama and controversy sell newspapers. This is why I have refrained from making comment to the multiple media groups that have contacted me. They are not sincerely interested in learning about our ideas or vision for the future of Wabasha County. Instead they are more interested in printing words that bring hurt and fuel the fires of divisiveness.

This experience has been an incredible eye-opener. I was very naïve in my thinking that everyone would want and embrace more efficient, simple and fiscally responsible government. I have been completely amazed at the nasty and vindictive actions people opposed to conservative leadership will go to in order to side track the forward progress of the board. In an apparent effort to harass and entrap some of the commissioners, there have been numerous data requests. These data requests require commissioners to submit any correspondence regarding county matters we have had via email since the first of the year. These requests then need to be redacted by our assistant county attorney to ensure no private data is released to the public. I don’t have the specific dollar figure on what this frivolous activity is costing the taxpayers of Wabasha County, but I know the hours and hours of busy work for our staff is becoming a huge burden.

The history for data requests regarding the Wabasha County Commissioners has been a very rare occurrence, that is until the 70 ideas were identified. It appears as though a group of people are submitting data requests on a weekly basis in order to distract commissioners from doing our job. I would also imagine there are those with a more malicious motivation. I anticipate some of those scouring emails are eager to distort or alter the meaning of our communications in hopes of bringing personal destruction. I don’t look for the political games to end anytime soon. In the meantime, you might consider contacting your commissioner in order to verify the accuracy and completeness of information.

I will do my best to continue focusing on the responsibilities of my role as commissioner despite the ongoing distractions and personal attacks. I don’t believe the voters wanted a ‘Token Commissioner’ who allows the status quo to do the thinking for them. Contrarily, I still firmly believe that common sense and dedication to the electorate will bring about the much needed changes in Wabasha County Government.



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