Ten months after taking office as Minnesota state auditor, Julie Blaha hasn’t lost a bit of her enthusiasm, even if hers is a position many may see as stuffy or even dull. She still gets “really nerdy” about solid, indisputable data and their ability to bring together polarized views — “a nice, refreshing break from partisanship” and politics, she said in an interview last week with News Tribune Editorial Board members.
“I get to focus on the numbers,” said Blaha. “If you want to take a break from partisanship, dig into the numbers.”
Visiting Duluth, Blaha dug into connecting with officials from the city, St. Louis County, Carlton County, and elsewhere, believing that “by building stronger connections, we can build stronger communities," as she said in a statement ahead of her trip north. She also attended the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association convention.
It was her second swing around the state this year.
While here, she touted legislative action last session that gave her office more budgeting flexibility and the freedom to move money more easily where it’s needed — to the benefit of local communities, she said.
“That was huge. That very tiny, tiny change was really helpful,” she said.
Her office takes care of the auditing for the city of Duluth, the Duluth Economic Development Authority, the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, the Duluth Transit Authority, and others in the northeastern corner of the state. It no longer does St. Louis and other counties after they broke away to save money. It still reviews their audits once they’re done, however.
“Whether we do your audit or not, we serve the whole state. And if we serve you, we want to take time to connect” and to discuss and share statewide best practices and trends, she said. “In Greater Minnesota, particularly rural Minnesota, the idea of actually coming out and talking to people face to face has a huge impact.”
In the Northland, Blaha additionally heard from officials about community growth, population changes, the positive effects an increase in local government aid are having at local levels, the increases in disability and survivor-benefits payouts among fire relief associations, and more, she said.
Perhaps most importantly, she spent time with the five state auditor employees who work out of Duluth. The state auditor has had an office in Duluth for more than 40 years. It used to be in City Hall; now it’s in the Miller Hill Mall area. Duluth is home to one of five state auditor satellite offices statewide.
“Duluth deserves these good jobs, too,” Blaha said. “We shouldn’t be keeping them all in Minneapolis and St. Paul. This is about equity, about jobs around the state, especially when you get good talent and the office space is cheaper (in Duluth compared to twin Cities). … And you can’t trade an actual connection to the community, just to know what’s going on. … You’re already living in it. ...
“I do just love it,” the onetime middle-school math teacher said of her elected position. “These people that I work with are just good, humble people who want to do good work for their neighbors, who are trying to do good work for their neighbors. There’s nothing better than being able to support the work of good, concrete, get-it-done (employees). This is one of the places where the partisanship can fall away.”