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County debates scaled down space plan as need rises

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The county's scaled back plan to eliminate overcrowding is only feasible with a rock-bottom interest rate on bonds.

But as the county's Social Services department continues to see growing requests for assistance and less room to operate in, the need to expand is starting to become crucial.

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Hubbard County board chair Lyle Robinson suggested the commission start shopping for interest rates below 2 percent, getting stimulus money or grant money other counties can't use and have turned back in to agencies doling out low-interest financing.

"It could be a $600,000 to $700,000 difference" in the $2+ million project. The overcrowding solution would entail moving the judicial wing, including the courts and court administration, to the vacant second floor of the law enforcement building, freeing up space for Social Services, which is getting very cramped, commissioners agreed.

Commissioner Greg Larson has questioned the need for the courts, judges and administration to occupy such a large amount of space when caseloads and case filings continue to plummet and the county "only holds six jury trials a year," he said. Crime rates are way down, Sheriff Frank Homer has told the county board.

Nevertheless, court personnel say they need two courtrooms and room for juries to deliberate.

But the move is necessitated more by the growing workload of Hubbard County Social Services than it is driven by court needs.

Social Services Director Darryl Bessler said it's no secret that in tough economic times, there is more need for public assistance.

The initial thought called for Social Services to occupy the second floor of the Law Enforcement Center, but court personnel convinced the architects of the space study they needed the additional room and security the second floor would afford.

Of the unveiled $10 million plan to shuffle county offices around and build a new two-story building, the stripped down version is all commissioners seem to be willing to commit to.

"It's just a study," commissioner Cal Johannsen said. "It's all preliminary. If we're serious about going ahead with any portion of it we need to go to an architect" to draw up final plans.

Commissioner Don Carlson has repeatedly questioned the need to even move the judicial wing, maintaining there are plenty of affordable and vacant buildings downtown the county could explore renting.

"Even little things, putting a door here, cost, and I personally have no interest beyond 1A," Robinson said, referring to the plan that would move court personnel to the LEC.

"It would solve our needs for a long, long time," Robinson added.

Bessler said with growing caseloads, he may be back before the board asking to hire additional personnel. In October 2000, he said caseworkers had an average caseload of 146 cases. This October, those caseloads have risen to 233 cases per worker.

"We are operating at a much higher level," he told the board last week.

Requests for healthcare and food stamps are up, he said, along with the processing work to determine eligibility for public assistance programs.

"I could use some more help right now but where am I gonna put 'em?" he asked the board.

While Bessler expressed optimism that the rough economy and need for assistance will be short-term, he admitted as the Hubbard County population ages, there are more requests for county-provided medical care the federal government doesn't want to shoulder beyond basic Medicare.

Robinson wondered if it was "impossible to get people back into the workforce" once they've been unemployed for an extended length f time.

"Healthcare and food stamps are the need" now, Bessler said. "The concern is that MnCare (the state-funded healthcare insurance program for low income recipients) is going to go broke. When the economy goes bad demands on our agency goes up."

Robinson asked county coordinator Jack Paul to start the process looking for low-interest financing before finding an architect to draw up plans.

If the plan moves forward, some county offices would move into the judicial wing to free up more office space for Social Services functions.

In other board action, the commission:

-Accepted the pending retirement of jail program coordinator Bill Devine, effective Dec. 1. The county may have to replace Devine according to Department of Corrections mandates, which say jails with inmate populations of 30 prisoners must have such a position staffed. The correctional center's inmate population fluctuates between 30 and 40.

The position, a liaison between the jail and the community, assists inmates in finding work after release, coordinates substance abuse counseling, treatment and medical and mental health care and assists prisoners further their education.

-Discussed three public works projects nearly completed or still in the works.

The county is still awaiting lights to install at 14 rural intersections. They are due sometime in December, county engineer David Olsonawski told the board.

The recently completed County Road 7 bridge near Zorbaz pizzeria needs some minor finishing touches, milling and curb and gutter work, next spring.

A hillside the contractor illegally leveled for fill materials for the project next to Zorbaz has been sprayed with a wildflower mix of seeds with native grasses. A fabric erosion control blanket covers the seeds. Olsonawski said the county won't know until spring if the mix will successfully grow.

A new bridge in Straight River Township has been completed but will need grading when the weather dries out. An old wooden bridge was replaced by two large box culverts and covered with Class 5 gravel.

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