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Veterans Service Officer will be full-time position

Hubbard County commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to advertise for a full-time Veterans Service Officer.

This follows nearly a year of wrangling over staffing the formerly part-time position, which had the added duties of Emergency Management.

The Hubbard County Sheriff's Department will assume temporary oversight of the EM duties until a permanent solution can be determined.

The county VSO will be staffed five days a week for now, with help from Fargo and retired VSO John Lombard taking the helm until a replacement is hired. That's more help than the office has had for the past two years.

"That's great news," said Dave Free, Park Rapids American Legion commander.

"I'm glad they finally did it," Free said. "It was needed."

Free led legions of veterans into the county boardroom the past six months, all complaining of poor service and no service due to the frequent absences of the former VSO.

The board rejected a proposal, brought through commissioner Don Carlson, from a retired Air Force commander to offer his services free so that the county could then hire two part-time staff.

"I don't think the board has ever had concerns about cost," board chair Lyle Robinson said. "Our concerns are coverage."

The board, in splitting the two positions, saw the wisdom of doing so. Training is extensive for each job and contributed to the absenteeism that prompted some complaints.

The county entered into a purchase of services agreement with Lombard that will pay him $30 per hour for three days a week.

Fargo VA claims supervisor Jeff Burth is staffing the office two days a week, providing training to interim VSO Darryl Hensel, on loan from the county recorder's office. Burth said he would stay on to train whoever is hired.

Free said there are many good candidates in the immediate area. One man, Eric Nash, attended the board meeting and said he would apply for the position.

"We need to dwell on making the vets happy, getting the vets everything they have coming," Robinson said.

"When I look at what other counties are bringing in (for outside financial assistance), we've got to make sure we get the right person."

Robinson and the board, in assigning the Emergency Management duties to Hubbard County Sheriff Frank Homer, said the county wants the EM position to bring in federal and state funds, too.

Those outside dollars, grants and other financial help, are forms of economic development, Robinson continually says.

"When you look at the part-time guy in Bemidji bringing in $1 million and us bringing in $16,000," Robinson said, there needs to be more focus on obtaining those grant funds.

The state-mandated EM position carries 250+ hours of training for initial certification. State Homeland Security personnel said they would contribute $16,000 to fund the position.

That has griped county officials. "They expect the world for that $16,000," Robinson said at a previous meeting.

Homer said he would evaluate the needs of the EM position and whether he can fill it internally.

"It's an option, no question, we're exploring," Homer said. "I would first off have to find the person who is qualified, who has the energy to do the job and then make it fit in with what they do at the sheriff's office at the same time.

"I would hate to try and bring that position here, give it to someone who's basically 70-80 percent of their time is SO and 20 percent would be emergency management. I don't think we would do justice to our county if we did that," Homer said.

The position carries a lot of responsibility, Homer admitted.

"You're setting guidelines for the county and reflecting off the surrounding counties," he said. "You're grabbing the bull by the horns. You're in front."

Nevis Fire Chief Kerry Swenson is Cass County's part-time Emergency Manager and a dispatcher the remainder of his time.

"There's a lot of things that never get touched with a part-time position because you're doing what you need to do to get your grant qualifications," he said.

He's Cass County's point person for grant procurement.

He said all counties need to have a hazard mitigation plan in place to obtain any FEMA disaster money. It's unclear what the status of Hubbard County's plan currently is. Swenson said both the hazard mitigation plan and a county emergency plan must be constantly upgraded and maintained.

"There's a lot of things involved that people don't see," Swenson said. "When something happens they look to someone for resources and if that position isn't there those resources are hard to find."

Homer said he would report back to the board once he finds a qualified person willing and able to accept the responsibility.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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