County Commissioners create own roadblock in reorganization plans

The tension was palpable in the Isanti County Government Center Board Room Nov. 3 following the public hearing and the vote on a resolution to appoint the county recorder rather than it being an elected position. 

The tension between county staff and some board members was just as palpable Nov. 8 at the Committee of the Whole meeting when the board and staff discussed what direction county staff should take now after a year’s worth of planning.

The board voted 3-2 in favor of the resolution. However state statute states this vote had to be a super-majority –  at least four of the five board members would have to vote in favor. Commissioners Greg Anderson, Susan Morris and Terry Turnquist voted in favor of the resolution, with Mike Warring and Dave Oslund voting against it.

 “This was inconsistent with the board’s decision to reorganize, which was approved,” said Isanti County Administrator Julia Lines, while asking the board to keep the Nov. 8 Committee of the Whole meeting as scheduled, rather than cancel it as had been planned. “There has been a significant amount of work done in (County Auditor/Treasurer) Chad’s (Struss) office to make a new plan for this streamlined vision and that plan has been completely thrown out the window. So I would like to hear from Commissioner Warring and Commissioner Oslund how they would like to direct Mr. Struss to now run the operation that he has been planning for many, many months and running.”

HISTORY OF REORGANIZATION

According to a timeline presented by Lines, all five board members previously approved a resolution to appoint the county recorder position. Oslund was the board chair at the time and signed the resolution. The resolution stated that the county board requests that the state legislators at the time move forward a bill supporting such legislation in the Minnesota House and Senate. However; such a bill did not move forward. 

In January 2019, the county board approved a proposal from DDA Human Resources to complete a reorganization study for the county assessor, auditor/treasurer, GIS, recorder, and zoning departments. The work was started, but then halted when the county administrator position became open, according to Lines.

In June 2020, the board discussed changing the reorganization scope to be a county-wide study, because the pandemic forced the county “into a different way of operation, and just highlighted the need to have more collaboration, organization between staff, opportunities for staff, and ways to just offer more efficient services that better meet the needs of the public,” Lines said.

The county hired Gary Weiers of DDA Human Resources to conduct the study, which was discussed in detail with staff and the commissioners in October 2020.

During the Nov. 23, 2020, Committee of the Whole, the board again discussed in detail the recommendations of Mr. Weiers, and the direction from the board was to move forward with reorganization, according to Lines. She stated that none of the board members voiced any opposition at that time, and the reorganization included appointment of auditor/treasurer and recorder.

“Hundreds of hours have been spent by us staff looking at what the organization will look like, how this will better improve our processes and our functions,” Lines said.

Since that time, the Health and Human Services, Central Services, Environmental Services, and Chief Financial Officer positions have all been approved, with leaders for each of these new divisions being appointed.

“So just trying to understand how the direction of the board has now suddenly changed and has really put our staff in a difficult position, given the inconsistent direction that we have been working really hard for this past year,” Lines concluded. 

PUBLIC COMMENTS ABOUT THE APPOINTMENT

At the Nov. 3 board meeting, there were four people who commented during the public hearing. None of them were in favor of appointing rather than electing the county recorder. The primary argument voiced was that — just like the change to appoint rather than elect the auditor/treasurer — appointing the county recorder would be taking away the public’s right to vote. Additionally, they felt there has been a general lack of transparency between the commissioners and the general public on this and other issues.

STRUSS EXPLAINS THE STRATEGIC PLAN

Struss stated that in 2019, the state legislature passed a bill that allowed counties to  appoint the position of county auditor/treasurer and recorder, and set forth the requirements for it. He pointed out Isanti County is not the only county to move away from those positions being elected. At least 41 counties in Minnesota have an appointed recorder position.

“It’s kind of become the trend, and the reason for the trend is there’s a better way to do these jobs than what has historically been done,” Struss said, noting that other positions throughout history that have moved away from being elected positions to appointed positions include county coroner, surveyor and county administrator. “For various reasons over the years, it became more efficient to look to those positions by appointing them.”

Struss said since the majority of what the auditor/treasurer and recorder are responsible for is directed by state statute, there is not a lot of discretion in what those positions can do.

“In my 14 years, 15 years, something like that, the number of people that complained about the efficiency of county government and the high taxes in Isanti County absolutely dwarfs the concern about the appointment issue,” Struss said. 

While a number of things, such as the tax base, are out of the control of county officials, one of the things that the county can control is how it does business in order to provide better service to the public for the tax dollars that are collected, he said, adding that this is the intent of appointing versus electing the two positions. 

He explained the inefficiency of the current process for someone recording a deed, starting at the recorder’s office, then going to the auditor/treasurer’s office to get the taxes on the parcel in order, then going back to the recorder’s office to record the final document. 

Not only is it inefficient, he also explained that cross-training employees will save taxpayers’ money, and the plan is to place the auditor/treasurer, recorder and assessor functions all under one division with one customer service counter. This process has already been started with the assessor and auditor/treasurer’s office, he added.

He also explained that in the 2022 budget, he reduced the number of temporary election staff he will hire due to being able to have staff cross-trained.

“If they are separate offices and they are separate elected officials, it doesn’t work for someone to have two bosses,” Struss said. “I think that anyone that has been in business … it just doesn’t work to have two bosses trying to share a position, and it’s not efficient. So in the spirit of efficiency and trying to create a better customer-service experience, allow us to serve more customers, we also have to be more cross-trained and ensure continuity of service.”

Along with the things that have already taken place and are being worked on, Struss added that there is also a lot of collaboration that will continue to take place as the county moves forward with reorganization. 

“We’re already working on things between the assessor’s office and the auditor/treasurer’s office, but if we could get that recorder piece — Karen (Long) does a great job as the recorder — then I think we can really develop something that could create more efficiencies to better service and ultimately lead to lower costs, so I would really encourage the board to adopt this resolution,” Struss said. 

Turnquist acknowledged that change is hard, and each member of the board has to make decisions they feel are best for the county moving forward. 

“I think this direction is one more piece in the puzzle — we’re trying to create a better environment and more customer-friendly, if you will, and make a better experience for our taxpayers,” he said, noting the recorder position is not a policy-making position, and he never understood why it was an elected position. 

WARRING AND OSLUND DEFEND THEIR POSITIONS

During the Nov. 8 Committee of the Whole meeting, commissioners Warring and Oslund explained why they voted against appointing the county recorder.

“I just do not think it was right to have non-elected people fill the position,” Warring said. “I don’t see why we couldn’t work with an elected auditor/treasurer as the head of all that financial department.”

He also again stated that he doesn’t like the idea of taking away votes from the electorate, adding, “I like the idea of looking at efficiency; I have yet to hear if we have some, assuming we have some. Do we have some financial savings, or are we still in that position where we spend money to try and get to that point?”

“I appreciate Commissioner Warring that at least you have been very vocal and very clear about your stance,” Lines said. “But I guess I’m confused, and maybe Commissioner Oslund can address why he voted in favor of appointing auditor/treasurer, and now this last piece of the puzzle to get to the end goal which we were going towards (he voted against).” 

Oslund stated it was just a “gut feeling.” Oslund said he thought the county could continue moving in the same direction and just work together to make things work. Lines pointed out that, while everybody does work together, it would not be possible to move forward with the same plan, because statutory duties are different for elected officials in the recorder’s office versus appointed officials.

Warring stated he also thought they would be able to move forward with the plan without the recorder being appointed.

MOVING FORWARD – WHAT NOW?

Turnquist asked to hear from Struss as to how this is going to affect the overall strategic plan to reorganize.

Struss explained it won’t create efficiencies if the appointed auditor/treasurer and the elected recorder “just work together.”

“If you’ve ever had two bosses, it doesn’t work,” he continued. An example he used was when he worked under both former Isanti County Administrator Kevin VanHooser and former Isanti County Auditor Terry Treichel. “I’ll be honest, there were days that it was tough, because Kevin was saying one thing, and Terry was saying another thing, and I didn’t know which way to go,” Struss said.

He noted that the county was trying to set up divisions with an organizational structure in which they can all work together as needed, but the direction of the division was implemented by one person with consultation of staff. 

“Yes, Karen and I can work together on some things, but who’s to say that Karen is in that seat?” Struss asked. “Ultimately, at the end of the day, I wish to run as efficiently as possible, and I really feel that is most effective with a strong one direction to give the staff to serve the public, and then one set of guidelines for the public to follow when being served.”

Morris pointed out that a lot of thought went into creating the flow chart for reorganization for the Financial Services Division and what the recorder’s employment agreement would look like under the Chief Financial Officer. Although Long would be giving up being a department head with the reorganization, she was OK with it, because she had respect for Struss and knew she would be OK working under him, Morris noted.

When asked her thoughts on what happened at the board meeting, Long stated that it seemed like she had been preparing for a surgery that she knew would be unpleasant and difficult, but the end result would be a better functioning body. 

“Your situation in the end is going to be better,” Long said. “And then after the meeting I kind of felt like, well darn, I sat and prepared for this and now the doctor’s called and said I’m not going to have this. It was kind of a let down.” 

She noted she had been thinking about some of the things the recorder’s office would be able to do once under the Financial Service’s Division, but now would not be able to do because of the statutory requirements for each office.

“I do think there are ways our offices can work together. I do think there are efficiencies to be made, but this kind of puts a little kink in the hose,” Long said. “I have a lot more questions again, and wondering where we are going to go and what is going to happen.”

Struss also stated the offices do already work together as much as possible, but there is a limit. “The statutes weren’t written in modern times,” he said. “I think we can all admit that some of them are maybe a little outdated in how the different functions are carried out. But still, if I’m the county auditor, I’m responsible, or the county treasurer, I’m responsible for collecting the mortgage and deed tax. Would any of you delegate that to another office with no oversight?”

He said that would be a great efficiency for the taxpayers if the recorder were appointed and placed under the Financial Services Division. 

Struss asked for direction from the board about what it liked and what it didn’t like in order to move forward in a direction in which the board approved. He noted he had felt like he got burned by the board when he asked for less temporary election staff, which he saw as a cost-savings. However, now that not all the cross-training could take place due to the decision not to appoint the recorder, he will more than likely be asking the board for additional money for additional temporary election staff.

Struss asked if the board wanted the recorder to move to the auditor/treasurer office to streamline customer service and not have its own separate office, and how that would work. 

Oslund and Warring pointed out that was the plan if the recorder became an appointed position, and thought that could still work with moving some of the staff around.

Struss and Long both pointed out reasons why it may be difficult, but they could make it work. 

“Just so the board knows, every time there is an inconvenience, I’m going to bring it up,” Struss stated. “That’s only fair, right? You’re not going to let us make these efficiencies.”

“After first approving the direction of the efficiencies,” Lines commented.

“Right, to be honest, had this been voiced way back in November (2020) or whatever, I don’t even know if we would have gone down this road necessarily,” Struss continued.

“We certainly wouldn’t have spent hundreds of hours working on it, which is taxpayer dollars, incidently,” Lines added. 

“There’s a lot of other things I could have been spending time doing,” Struss said. “I’m in that office 40-plus hours per week. I feel like I’m here (in the board room) 20 hours a week. I hope that communication going forward can be better. The last thing I want to do is waste my time.”

Long pointed out on behalf of her staff that they are still looking forward to coming up with ways in which to work with the auditor/treasurers office in whatever capacity that may be.

“If you don’t agree with something, speak up about it,” Struss stated. “I’m not here for political games. That’s not why I’m here. I like serving the public, I like serving my community and I want to do that as efficiently as possible. 

I hear those people just as much as you do saying their taxes are too darn high in this county. Whatever we can do to make that a little bit better, I hope that is all of our goal and not be distracted for political points.”

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