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Hubbard County begins 2012 budget

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As Hubbard County embarks on its fourth "no frills" budgetary year, commissioners are starting to ask bolder questions.

What if the jail were no longer funded? What if certain programs like Sentence to Service were eliminated? Should older county employees be bought out and sent packing?

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How else will the county make up an estimated $900,000 deficit in the general fund?

At a work session Wednesday, commissioners called "The Big Three" before the board to scrutinize their budgets.

Public Works and Social Services will see little changes, their managers told the board.

n Public Works will ask for the same $3 million as last year, engineer Dave Olsonawski said. If the workload stays at the current pace of one or two projects a year, cuts to staff will be considered, he said.

"We're not there yet," he added.

Although County Program Aid used to defray part of the public works budget and homestead credits have been done away with as of 2012, the county has a brief adjustment period before the revenue hammer falls. There will still be some CPA, although the county no longer budgets for it, Auditor Pam Heeren said.

n Social Services will see few changes in the coming biennium as the last, director Daryl Bessler told the board.

And there may be some bright spots, in that out-of-home placement costs are decreasing because of a philosophy it's better to keep children in the homes and work with the families, than removing the kids, Bessler said.

"The idea is permanency," Bessler said. "Kids need to have a permanent place to be."

But that's assuming the department doesn't have an influx of the difficult cases such as sexual abuse, he said.

In 2008 the department's out of home costs were $914,000, Bessler said. For 2012 the department is requesting $550,000.

"I think this is a relatively accurate picture of the revenues," Bessler told the board.

But he warned as children return to school, mandatory reporting will increase, placing more kids into the system, he said. Educators by law must report suspected abuse or neglect.

Bessler anticipates no increase in staff, which has seen the hiring of more financial and caseworkers as needs have arisen,

"Are we helping them to the point of self-sufficiency?" commissioner Kathy Grell asked.

A self-sufficiency index determines levels of support, Bessler said, looking at language skills, incomes, unemployment and labor force participation rates.

"In the current economic situation there are people with good credentials... that are unemployed," Bessler said. "It's hard to get the long-term unemployed back into the workforce."

Bessler said the department would continue to generate $800,000 annually in revenues processing intake and MNCare forms, because workers still feel they can provide quicker service than the state.

n Then there is the law enforcement budget.

Sheriff Cory Aukes and his staff were the first to go before the board.

Aukes told the board he was presenting "a very realistic budget for what it costs to run the Sheriff's Department. "In 2011 we had some unrealistic numbers we had to work with."

Wages for part-time employees, budgeted at $65,000 in 2011, will rise to a requested $100,000 for the 2012 budget, Aukes said.

"It's a substantial increase but it's realistic," he said.

The training budget rose from $1,000 in 2011 to a requested $8,000 in 2012.

"We have done so good with overtime this year," Aukes said, to a frown from Grell. "You can't always count on us being this low in our overtime numbers."

"You know how I feel about overtime," Grell reminded the sheriff. "If you have more part-time people the logic in my head says the overtime goes down."

But commissioner Cal Johannsen said those part-time hours must be maintained or staff looks elsewhere for work.

And contractually, if an employee calls in sick, the union contract specifies that a full-timer must be asked to fill in first, resulting in time-and-a-half pay.

Unforeseen events such as a homicide or a drowning can quickly run up the overtime tab, Aukes told the board.

"Overtime is a lot cheaper than paying health insurance," commissioner Lyle Robinson said. To hire another full-time deputy would cost more than the overtime expenses, he said.

But several times Robinson asked Aukes and jail administrator Sherri Klasen what they would do if the jail were no longer funded.

It simply isn't practical to transport every drunk driver to Brainerd for processing, Klasen pointed out. The jail would need to stay open for booking purposes.

And it is already operating at a minimum staff of four persons per shift, so measures such as closing the women's cellblock wouldn't save any money, she said. Currently there are 10 women housed in that wing,

Grell said she'd recently read the state has 3,000 vacant jail cells, with states such as California need 30,000 beds.

She urged Aukes to work with the sheriffs association to fix the problem on a statewide basis.

But commissioners worried that taking California inmates could invite a whole new set of problems. The state would send Minnesota its worst offenders.

"You import from California and you'll see what you get," commissioner Dick Devine said. "You'll get Charles Manson."

Continuing to reduce the jail's daily rates to compete with neighboring counties is also unwise, the board reasoned.

Aukes said having a medical doctor on staff, even part-time, would reduce the cost of sending inmates to the clinic and emergency room when they are ill.

And the jail has been steadily housing inmates from other counties, Klasen said, increasing the daily population to almost 40 in the 60-cell facility.

The board agreed to give Klasen and Aukes time to improve the daily boardings before taking more drastic action.

"Closing the jail is an option," Aukes said. "Closing half of it is not. I need some time. I think we can make it work."

"I do like what Cory's doing here, presenting a realistic budget," Johannsen said.

"We do not have an unending source of revenue," Robinson cautioned.

The preliminary levy must be set by Sept. 15.

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ssmit

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers Hubbard County, courts and breaking news.

(218) 732-3364
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