Havre Daily News
As a Hill County commissioner, Doug Kaercher believes that sometimes the state asks too much of counties. As a member of the Montana Association of Counties' board, he's been able to do something about that - communicating with legislators about where problems lie and what can be done about them. Kaercher has served on MACo's board since 2003 and will become president after a formal vote on Sept. 28.
The organization's main function is to advocate for counties during legislative sessions, Kaercher said. Counties should have a voice in state politics because state decisions are often felt at the county level, he added.
"That's where the rubber meets the road," Kaercher said. "It is where we make government work. We're actually more responsive. We're sitting here, and you can come in and talk to us."
MACo generally gets behind legislation that will help county government do its job, Kaercher said.
"Sometimes you don't know until the Legislature is actually meeting" what that legislation will be, he said.
MACo in 2001 supported a bill that redefined the state's relationship with counties when it came to administering several joint state and county programs and sharing state and county fees. The bill created a pool for fees that were once passed back and forth between the state and counties, MACo executive director Harold Blattie said.
For example, motor vehicle fees were collected by counties and then turned over to the state. Some of the money counties collected and turned over the state was then returned again to counties.
The amount and timing of the revenue was difficult to predict, Kaercher said, and a headache for counties when it came time to draw up budgets.
Instead, the state put several types of fees, including motor vehicle fees, into the pool. Counties were gauranteed set payments from that pool based on the amount counties were given in 2001 before the new law took effect.
Also in that legislative session, the state assumed responsibility for welfare programs and a majority of the costs for state District Court - two programs that Blattie said were growing faster than counties could afford to pay for them. As part of the agreement over pooling fees, counties gave up fees that would have gone to the county to run those programs.
Finally, the bill limited the demands that the state could make of counties that the state does not fund.
This year, MACo supported a law that allows small businesses to join a health insurance pool.
Next year, MACo may support a bill that standardizes the public defender system statewide. Currently, each county has a slightly different system, Kaercher said.
In the meantime, MACo members will watch the results of a special session this fall to determine a new funding formula for schools.
Kaercher's time as president of MACo will be spent preparing for the 2006-7 legislative session as well as helping shape the future of MACo, he said. The organization's executive director recently retired after 22 years.
"This next year is going to be really imprtant in setting out goals for the next 20 years," he said.
Kaercher said his new position will not be more time-consuming than the past positions he's held in MACo.
In the organization, a president selects a second vice president, a position Kaercher was chosen to fill at the end of 2002. After a year, the second vice president progresses to first vice president, then to president, and then to past president.
As first vice president during a legislative session this year, Kaercher said he probably put in as much time as his work with MACo will ever require, making frequent trips to Helena.