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A massive concrete crushing operation is under way behind the South Transfer Station in Park Rapids, grinding accumulated construction debris into dust. It will eventually be bid out, giving the solid waste department some much-needed revenue after it was forced to lay off five employees. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

County approves two hires, lifting freeze

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The threat of a winter like last year and the plight of overworked county departments finally broke a logjam Wednesday in a county hiring freeze enacted early in 2009.

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A deeply divided Hubbard County Board of Commissioners voted to hire a full-time snowplow driver who will also mow, repair and grade roads. Then it gave Hubbard County Attorney Don Dearstyne half a loaf, allowing him to advertise for a half-time prosecutor. He'd asked for a full-time attorney but said he'd settle for a three-quarter- time employee.

The plow operator hiring generated some heated exchanges between board members.

Commissioner Cal Johannsen wondered if an independent contractor couldn't fill the vacancy, especially since the county hasn't had a snowfall yet.

"Not hiring a snowplow driver if you don't have snow is like not hiring a police officer since the bank hasn't been robbed," said commissioner Dick Devine.

Commissioners finally allowed the hires after Auditor Pam Heeren said the county had reduced its 2009 expenditures by $550,000.

"Most departments are in pretty good shape," Heeren said. She singled out the law enforcement department, which has historically run over budget in past years.

Its revenues, three-quarters into the year, were at 94 percent, Heeren told the board, and its expenditures were at 76 percent. The only blemish in the law enforcement budget is that projected jail revenues of $200,000 were only at 59 percent at this time of year because the inmate population is low.

But Heeren, and later the commission, had high praise for Sheriff Frank Homer.

"It appears from a management standpoint you're doing a good job running your department," board chair Lyle Robinson told Homer, who was appointed last spring to fill out the unexpired term of former sheriff Gary Mills, who resigned for health reasons.

The highway department patted itself on the back in seeking more help.

"Our cash balance is good," said county engineer Dave Olsonawski, requesting the maintenance operator position be filled.

"Are we gonna allow the other departments to hire?" questioned Johannsen. "A hiring freeze is a hiring freeze."

"Once you open it up..." Robinson said. He worried the labor unions will insist on bringing all departments up to their former staffing levels during upcoming negotiations. Several vacant positions have not been filled due to attrition.

"We're already short four people," Olsonawski protested. "All we're asking for is one back."

One employee is only temporarily gone; he'll return when a broken arm heals.

"We need to tell these department heads if you're over budget you're out the window," Robinson said of the union negotiations. He's held a hard line on departmental spending in light of the poor economy, state cuts to local government and uncertain revenues.

Robinson pointed out the assessor's office has been shorthanded all year, but a snowplow operator is more specialized.

"There are people in the courthouse that can lend secretarial skills to the assessor," he said. "That's not the case" with the highway department.

It was also not the case with the county attorney.

"There's no one else I can draw from," Dearstyne said.

Commissioner Greg Larson, the former county attorney, questioned the need for another attorney when he maintained criminal cases are down 30 percent, juvenile matters are down 40 percent and the judicial workload was just reduced from having 1.6 judges to 1.3.

Dearstyne said he and associate prosecutor Erika Randall are handling "more felony DWIs, domestic cases. We've charged out half a dozen drug cases in the last week and a half."

He said property forfeitures from DWI and drug cases have increased the forfeiture budget by 700 percent.

"I have $12,000 to $13,000 in my forfeiture account," he said. "I can sustain a three-quarter-time person."

"I would normally vote against it but with the precedent we set for the highway department I've gotta vote for it," Johannsen said.

It was Larson who moved to hire a half-time attorney.

But the hires were tempered by layoffs in another department.

The solid waste department will be laying off five people Oct. 17, the day the south transfer station resumes winter hours, closing at 1 p.m. Saturdays instead of 5 p.m.

Solid waste collections have dipped to 2004 levels, said supervisor Vern Massie, and the lower collections and sales mean he can't justify all of his full-time employees.

Not only have waste collections dwindled, so have profits for various recycled products.

One full-time and four part-time employees will be laid off.

"Our demolition volume is almost nothing," said Massie. Home building and remodeling are down drastically, he said. Only three homes were demolished this season.

Garbage and recycling volumes have declined to a five-year low.

"My budgets have been eaten up pretty quickly," Massie acknowledged. He's been hearing about it from the board for the past year.

"With the way the budget is, I can't justify having people stare at the four walls," Massie said.

"We're heading into our slow period, so we'll just get by with a skeleton crew."

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