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Hubbard County offices feeling the strain of board's hiring freeze

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

The Hubbard County Attorney's office is so overburdened its lawyers are worried they will blow an important case if they have inadequate time to prepare. The two attorneys work late nights and weekends to keep abreast of their growing caseloads.

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The Veteran's Service Office is getting a drumbeat of complaints from vets upset their calls can't be returned promptly. Veterans' cases are piling up, too. Some are unemployed and need help.

As the Hubbard County Board set its 2010 levy at $11.36 million on Wednesday with an essentially zero growth budget, lingering concerns from a 2009 hiring freeze remain.

Department heads are trying to cut corners this year and suck it up again next year with fewer personnel.

The smaller departments are feeling the pinch.

"Our numbers are still consistently there," said County Attorney Don Dearstyne, presenting the county board with caseload numbers from 2004 to the present. "We were able to keep up with our summer law clerk but that's not the case now. The best move for the county is to allow us to hire another attorney." Dearstyne said he and assistant county attorney Erika Randall are now responsible for 750 cases each. He estimated that by farming out 490 cases, to bring the current workload down to a manageable level, it would cost the county $220,000 in outside legal fees.

If 250 cases were reassigned to private attorneys, it would cost the county an estimated $112,000. Hiring a new attorney will run around $70,000 in salary and benefits, the board discussed.

The number of criminal case files opened by the county attorney's office hovered near 900 in 2004; 2009 is on track to reach or surpass 1,400.

"If my attorneys don't have adequate time to prepare, the county is not adequately being served," Dearstyne said.

The office has, in the past, received a reimbursement from Hubbard County Social Services for legal work on welfare cases and child protection hearings. The funds, federal reimbursement for those cases, wasn't a dollar-for-dollar recovery, so "it's like robbing from Peter to pay Paul," Dearstyne told the board. Part of the $37,000 paid to the attorney's office this year came directly from the Social Services budget.

Dearstyne said he won't count on that reimbursement next year since it's all the same pot of money being shuffled around.

But his options at this point are to drop the contract to prosecute city cases, costing the county some $34,000 in annual revenue, or to cut back on the work his office does for the various Hubbard County departments such as Social Services, Environmental Services, county board requests and opinions the office regularly fields.

"I'm not advocating dropping the city contract," commissioner Cal Johannsen said.

"Everybody gets squeezed," commissioner Don Carlson said. "I hate to see the city take a hit. The city's part of us and we're a part of the city."

Dearstyne said unlike the Sheriff's Department, his office has no part-time staff to help out. If it was a matter of support staff, he said he'd borrow from other offices.

"I need someone licensed to go into court," he said. "I can't take someone from the assessor's office."

Board chair Lyle Robinson said the commission would take the matter under advisement and "do their homework" on the issue. He asked auditor Pam Heeren to give the board a third quarter update on how successful the cost-cutting measures have been. That will be presented in October.

Robinson voiced frustration that some county departments are overstaffed with dwindling workloads, yet department heads will not part with any employees. Meanwhile, the departments that truly need staff can't hire because the county is financially burdened with the cost of its current workforce.

Veteran's Service Officer Dave W. Konshok, like Dearstyne, was making his second appearance before the board to ask for help. Konshok also serves as the county's Emergency Management Director, a job that is seeing an increasing burden due to Homeland Security issues and mandates coming down from the federal government.

But it's the veterans' claims that are concerning him at the present time.

"The numbers (of veteran's seeking help) are trending up slowly but it's the level of complexity in the claims that was not there before," he told the board.

He's not able to devote the necessary time to attract federal and state grant monies available, "the main tracking measure in VSO performance," he said.

"Vets have a hard time getting phone calls back," he admitted. "Our main priority is walk-ins. You can't interrupt that face-to-face time to take calls."

He'd like to get into the northern and eastern segments of the county to do more outreach work, he said, but can't.

"It impacts on customer satisfaction, which I know you folks have been hearing about," Konshok said.

Commissioners nodded in agreement.

Robinson worried that the increasing mandates coming from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security can't be met without funding and the county could be out of compliance with both state and federal deadlines for obtaining radio equipment and paying for disaster preparedness. Homeland Security oversees readiness planning for emergencies, including storms and disasters.

"We've been working with the state for years on these," Robinson said. "The federal government doesn't seem to understand: no more unfunded mandates," he said.

"The feds really drive the train," Konshok agreed. "Sometimes they're more part of the problem than the solution."

"We'll get you a bigger hat," Carlson proposed to Konshok's juggling of the two jobs. Hubbard is one of five counties in Minnesota without a full-time Veteran's Service Officer.

Increasingly, out of work vets are seeking assistance. And Konshok, who requested a part-time service officer, said constant training and certification for both positions keeps him out of the office for days at a time.

He suggested many Emergency Management departments are absorbed under a law enforcement agency, and said he's not opposed to eventually merging his office with the Sheriff's Department.

The board took no action on his request, either.

Konshok's manpower issue, however, could become critical next year. An Air Force reservist, Konshok said he's awaiting word on whether he will be called up for an overseas deployment in 2010. If he is, he would be gone seven months.

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