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County focuses on delivering services, 'one-stop shopping' approach for citizens

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news Park Rapids, 56470
Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

Changes in the way Hubbard County delivers service to taxpayers was the focus of a three-pronged discussion Wednesday at the county board meeting.

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It began with a request by Dep. Auditor Sandy Rittgers to insert an informational pamphlet into tax statements that will be mailed out next month.

At a cost of $500-600, commissioners debated if that was the best way to disseminate information since the Minnesota Legislature made sweeping changes to property tax laws this summer.

Rittgers reasoned the information might help taxpayers understand the new Market Value Exclusion system, which replaces the old Homestead Credits and will result in tax hikes for most property owners.

Otherwise angry taxpayers could take their frustration out on the county when the tax statements are mailed out.

"I'd rather take the beating than take the $500 from a department scrounging to get by," commissioner Lyle Robinson said. "If we spend the $500 we have to take it from someplace else."

Tight budget constraints on county departments mean no un-budgeted expenditures will go unscrutinized. The information sheets were not budgeted as an expense.

"I have mixed feelings as to whether we should include it or not," Assessor Bob Hansen said. "I think we're going to have to spend a lot of time on the phone explaining it."

And that prompted a discussion of the role of government employees.

"Maybe it's a good thing they call and ask," Robinson said of taxpayer questions.

But many uncertainties still exist as to the impact the new law will have on property taxpayers, depending on the taxing authorities they contribute to, numerous other exclusions and other factors.

"We can't tell people your taxes are gonna go up X number of dollars because of this," commissioner Cal Johannsen worried.

Ultimately the board, on commissioner Dick Devine's motion, voted 4-1 to approve the enclosures.

"It could save us $500 of time" explaining it, he reasoned.

"The more information we get to them the better," board chair Greg Larson agreed.

The board also debated whether to allow Rittgers and staff to incur overtime.

Auditor/Treasurer Pam Heeren is serving a 20-workday suspension, which is spread over 30 days, for a personnel matter.

Rittgers said the office has numerous deadlines to meet and with a key employee gone, "certain things are going to take time."

Commissioners grudgingly approved her request, but warned her to get the work done without overtime. It is tax collection time, the offices are converting to new software, there are new staffers in the Treasurer's office and Rittgers said meeting all the necessary deadlines without incurring overtime could be a tall order.

Commissioners have long been concerned about practices in the Auditor/Treasurer's office that may violate labor laws.

"If an employee comes in 15 minutes early then have them leave 15 minutes early," Robinson instructed Rittgers. "We have to change the mindset that we have to work overtime if one person is gone."

That prompted a discussion of realigning key services to a "one-stop shopping" service where people could pay their taxes, record a deed or get a passport all at the same counter.

The state stopped allowing county offices that handle issuance of certain records to also issue passports because of the potential for identity fraud.

"It's a crime to have to leave this county to get a passport," Robinson noted.

Coordinator Debbie Thompson said some counties are going to a "government services counter" approach that would streamline operations and make it simpler for citizens to do business by sharing personnel.

The county has been re-thinking personnel for a couple years as space needs for all the employees grow and change.

Having a main floor supervisor that would evaluate all service employees would eliminate the need for separate department heads, which could then concentrate on their area of expertise and not management, the board suggested.

"Each department has to have some growth potential if the economy turns around," Robinson said.

Devine said it made sense to "have a person on the first floor to oversee traffic and move people around where they're needed."

That could entail rewriting job descriptions and cross-training.

The board had tentative plans to move the overcrowded Social Services Department above the jail at the Law Enforcement Center, but there was no plan on how to use the space that department vacates in the courthouse.

The board will hold a work session next Thursday, Oct. 13, at 1 p.m. to discuss its options.

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