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Counties continue to feel sting as state continues its squeeze

WILLMAR -- State budget reductions could mean counties will have to pay for some public defenders and state prisoners.

The financial shift is part of a "string of squeezes" the state is passing onto counties, said Jay Kieft, director of the Kandiyohi County Family Services Department.

Kieft on Tuesday told the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners that the State Board of Public Defense announced that as of July 8 it will no longer provide public defenders to parents involved with child protection cases, or cases when parents' rights are being terminated.

The decision was made because budget-balancing measures taken by the Legislature reduced state funding to the office. Conflicting wording in state laws makes it unclear whether or not the state is required to provide those public defenders.

If Kandiyohi County picks up the tab for the service, it could cost between $120,000 and $180,000 a year, based on the number of 2007 cases.

Kieft said he's been meeting with other counties to discuss options, while at the same time focusing on the county's mission to protect children.

The state cannot force the county to pay for the service after the budget has been set, but any delay could simply mean paying more next year.

County Attorney Boyd Beccue said contracting with local attorneys to provide the service is one option to consider.

County Administrator Larry Kleindl said at the same time the state has shifted more costs to counties, legislators also imposed a 3.9 percent levy limit in order to hold down property taxes. He said counties are continually "picking up more of the state's responsibilities."

Kleindl said paying for public defenders is part of the court's financial responsibility. "I don't think county taxpayers should pay it."

Commissioner Richard Falk encouraged Kieft and Kleindl to talk to local legislators about the situation.

Commissioner Dennis Peterson said he didn't think legislators even realized the local impact of those state budget cuts.

Kieft said it's vital that whatever action is taken, that the children are protected. He said his staff will continue to use programs that attempt to reduce child protection and parental termination cases.

With the current economic difficulties, Kleindl said, families who are at risk often experience even more stress and problems that can lead to more children being put at risk and more child protection cases.

Beccue said if the economy worsens and the Legislature makes more cuts in 2009, the negative effects on families could continue to grow.

The commissioners were also told that the state is reducing the amount of money it will pay counties for housing "short-term" state prisoners.

Felons who have less than six months of their sentence remaining are sent to their home county jail to finish serving their term. Currently counties get $33 a day.

Although a final figure hasn't been set yet, Sheriff Dan Hartog said he's heard the new rate could be just $9 to $10 a day.

"It's just another burden for the counties," Hartog said.

Kleindl said the county is "losing money every day" for each prisoner. "The county taxpayer is eating those costs."

The only good news, Hartog said, is that Kandiyohi County currently has fewer than six of these "short-time" felons in the jail.

The county also houses other prisoners for the state Department of Corrections under a different program that pays the county $56.10 a day for each prisoner.