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Itasca governments seek collaborative solutions
PHOTO: Shawn Gillen
Government isn't usually considered a model of efficiency. But there's an ad hoc group of local officials in Itasca County that is striving to change that perception through action.
They spent much of their time together during the past year around a table discussing how each might benefit from others and determining areas where a collaborative effort might make sense.
At a November meeting held in the basement of Grand Rapids State Bank in Grand Rapids, they began to discuss next steps.
The group is comprised of city councilors, township supervisors and city administrators from all over the county. Grand Rapids City Administrator Shawn Gillen, who's taken a leading role in the talks, reports to the group "there's potential in every community (I've met with) to do collaboration."
Representatives from LaPrairie, Marble, Calumet, Taconite and Coleraine as well as Harris and Arbo townships have joined officials from the city of Grand Rapids in these talks. The collective mission is to: "find ways to protect taxpayer money and increase accountability,"¯ with the key result: "Local government officials are able to focus more attention and make better decisions on community issues with timely and accurate financial reporting and accounting."
Mary Jo Wimmer has facilitated for and consulted with the group during the course of the last year. Her time has been funded through grant dollars from Grand Rapids-based Blandin Foundation.
Wimmer said the group has explored numerous options for collaboration during 2012. Weighed options include hiring private vendors for services and joint powers arrangements.
Although there is much left to be decided, there is clear sentiment around the table for moving forward.
"We're looking at a joint powers agreement at this point," said Grand Rapids City Councilor Ed Zabinski.
It isn't hard to imagine how these officials came to believe there might be a brighter future through cooperation rather than going it alone. In recent years, local government funding has become increasingly strained. And with recent budget problems of its own, few would be optimistic enough to believe the state of Minnesota will intervene.
In response, these officials have put it all on the table. And, although the path forward has yet to be clearly defined, they are discussing ways to collaborate and cost share on functions such as payroll, general ledger, investments, administration, accounts payable, audit preparation, monthly budget reports and even equipment or employee sharing.
While the idea might seem revolutionary, it does have local precedent. The Itasca Area Schools Collaborative was formed several years ago and is a combined effort of te Grand Rapids, Deer River, Nashwauk-Keewatin, Greenway, Hill City, Remer-Longville and Floodwood school districts. They have successfully launched joint ventures in community education, online learning and even implemented a common textbook cycle to increase buying power.
Two local government entities also have dipped a toe in the water through a collaborative agreement approved between the city of Grand Rapids and Arbo Township. The move came following the retirement of the township's lone employee. Because the township hadn't hired in some time, Arbo officials sought consulting help from Grand Rapids. The net result was an agreement to hire an employee who will work on a 75/25 split between the township and city, respectively. The employee, who has yet to be retained, would officially be an employee of the city of Grand Rapids. Arbo Township will pay the city for its use of that person's time plus a 10 percent administrative fee.
Tarry Edington, township supervisor, told other officials at the November meeting that they believe it will save the township $4,000 to $6,000 annually.
The shared employee also is expected to bring some money into the city of Grand Rapids as well as providing other benefits.
"The margins are pretty small, but there is a margin,"¯ said Gillen in a telephone interview. Sharing arrangements "give the benefit of a large organization without having to increase the size of an organization."
The cities of Bovey and Coleraine also shared police personnel in recent years. However, that collective arrangement was called off when city councils couldn't come to mutual agreement.
The local officials hoping to get greater collaboration off the ground recognize that navigating the waters of shared resources can be fraught with turbulence. Yet, optimism seems to abound.
"We've opened the dialog (on collaboration) and we're opening the thinking," said Edington.
"Once we get this established and once we can prove it works, it's going to take on a life of its own," added Mike Fall, mayor of LaPrairie.
Meanwhile, collaboration will proceed slowly. Next steps include drafting a potential joint powers agreement, determining which local governments will buy in and for what services as well as deciding the menu of shared services that will be available. Local government officials also must determine how services will be delivered by the city of Grand Rapids in an arrangement similar to the one in place with Arbo Township or a private vendor arrangement.
As next steps proceed, participants hope to be joined by local officials from other Itasca County cities that aren't yet at the table. Fall asserts that will come when the group can point to "a successful demonstration."
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