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Sheriff is from within

Frank Homer gave a recitation of his education, training and experience in winning the appointment to fill Sheriff Gary Mills' unexpired term. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)1 / 3
Sgt. Cory Aukes gives his presentation to the county board before a packed room, mostly law enforcement employees. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)2 / 3
Outgoing Sheriff Gary Mills attended the proceedings in his wheelchair. He is retiring because of chronic hip problems and two recent surgeries at Mayo Clinic.3 / 3

Frank Homer gets nod from county board

Hubbard County commissioners appointed Chief Deputy Frank Homer the new sheriff in town.

Homer will take office upon the "legal departure" of current Sheriff Gary Mills, which is scheduled for April 30. Mills, sidelined since December for a hip injury and surgery, attended the public interviews in his wheelchair Wednesday afternoon.

Homer and Sgt. Cory Aukes made appearances before the board to state their cases for the appointment to fill out the remainder of Mills' term, about 18 months.

"Before we get started, do you have any words of wisdom?" board chair Lyle Robinson asked Mills, to a packed boardroom full of law enforcement employees.

"Good luck to everybody," Mills said. "I didn't mean to create this."

"Yes you did," laughed commissioner Cal Johannsen, who unsuccessfully ran against Mills two elections ago.

The candidates for Mills' job gave very different 25-minute presentations.

Homer, who has been with Hubbard County 10 years, stressed his education, his credentials, his training, his experience in budgeting and his relations with other counties as assets that made him the best candidate.

"This year is the toughest I can remember with the cuts presented to us," Homer said. "It's comparable to 2007 but we can accomplish what's been set."

He said he "liked to play with numbers" and grappling with the budget would be a welcome challenge.

Aukes, a 19-year veteran of the department, admitted he had no budget experience, but said he was willing to "get my feet wet" and asked the commissioners for help if he were appointed.

He offered little personal information about his tenure on the force, other than his scheduling duties and the respect he said his peers had for him.

Instead, he gave a frank assessment of the law enforcement department, indicating that morale was flagging inside both the Sheriff's Department and jail, many employees hadn't been evaluated in two years and didn't know where they stood with their superiors, and said he'd reinstate internal accountability for the good of the taxpayers.

He also offered several money-saving tips. The department, like all others in the county, is cash-strapped and limited to no spending increases over last year.

"I've never been part of it (the budgeting process) but how hard is to ask if the sheriff needs to drive a new squad" car every year? Aukes asked. He also suggested having superior officers help cover night shifts to minimize overtime and suggested purchasing used equipment from State Patrol auctions to save money.

"They were both great," said commissioner Don Carlson, in proposing the motion to appoint Homer. "I think everybody knows it was a tough decision."

The vote was 4-1 to appoint Homer, with Johannsen dissenting. He's favored looking outside the department for Mills' replacement. Instead, the board voted to promote from within.

Neither candidate was present when the commission took its vote.

Here is the background of the new sheriff:

-He's married with three grown daughters, has been a Hubbard County resident since 1978 and a taxpayer since 1990.

-He graduated from Bemidji State University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. While there, he served as a campus security officer for two years.

-He completed his police skills training in Hibbing, then interned with the U.S. Marshal's Service in Minneapolis.

-He served as a police officer at the Cass Lake Police Department for two years, then was an officer on the Walker Police Department.

-He was a Cass County deputy for 10 years, serving six on patrol duty and four as a correctional officer.

-He took a job in Hubbard County in 1999 and was promoted to sergeant in 2000. He has served as a K-9 officer and helped form the Emergency Response Unit team with Wadena County, commonly referred to as the SWAT team.

-He was promoted to chief deputy in 2005. He's served on a regional radio board that will oversee the mandated conversion of emergency radio operations to a narrowband digital statewide system.

"I have a strong desire to be sheriff for the citizens of Hubbard County," Homer told the board. "I've had phenomenal feedback."

He acknowledged the department was facing tough times but said he "accepted the challenge when it's come my way."

He also said he would "work hard to supplement the jail and fill it with out-of-county inmates."

Homer was Mills' handpicked successor. Mills, in tendering his resignation last month, urged the board to appoint Homer.

Homer will be paid $6,000 less than Mills, who was slated to earn $84,575 this year. The $6,000 added to the salary base several years ago was to settle a lawsuit Mills filed against the county for a stipend he was receiving for jail meals, ruled by the Minnesota Attorney General to be without legal basis to collect.

The sheriff-to-be said he would conduct a staff meeting with all personnel after he officially takes office and work on departmental morale. But he pointed out that within any organization, there are people happy to do their jobs, and a small minority of disgruntled workers. He hopes to turn the unhappy few around, he said.

Aukes, a lifelong Park Rapids resident, has expressed an interest in running for the office in 2010 and has also gathered many supporters. Most observers predict a spirited race for the job in 2010 - and no one will go out on a limb to predict the outcome.