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Hubbard County debates replacing aging vehicle fleet

The Hubbard County Sheriff's Department's fleet of vehicles is aging and has high mileage. Last week the county board debated whether the county can afford to replace three of the vehicles. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

A request to purchase three new squad cars for the Hubbard County Sheriff's Department and auction older models brought up a familiar sob story: How poor is the county?

At last Wednesday's meeting of the Hubbard County Board of Commissioners, issues of safety and high mileage were discussed as reasons to replace the law enforcement department's aging fleet.

"I know these are tough times and I know it's an unfortunate time to come in and ask for new squads," Sheriff Frank Homer said.

The department was asking for two new squad vehicles, which typically have been Ford Crown Victorias, and a new SUV.

"I'd like to see your budget before we start backfilling it," board chair Lyle Robinson said, reminding Homer the board needs to see a revised budget.

Department heads all got their 2010 budgets back when the board decided earlier this fall to work with 2009 budgetary figures.

Homer said he has turned in his revised budget.

Robinson asked Homer if he could afford to subtract the cost of the new vehicles from personnel costs to get to the zero-growth figure.

"It's a great discussion but we've gotta have a plan," Robinson said. "It's a fair hunk of money to take out of personnel."

"We're bare bones," Homer said of his squad. The department has not replaced at least one deputy that resigned last spring.

But commissioner Cal Johannsen reminded Robinson that all equipment and vehicle purchases were removed from the departmental budgets last year, and that purchase of new vehicles shouldn't impact Homer's personnel costs.

"We did" remove those items, Robinson agreed. "We couldn't afford them."

The commission took no action on the request, agreeing to wait until the yearend budget picture becomes clearer.

At the three-quarter mark of the year, the county had scrimped and spent about $500,000 less than it had at this time last year. But because the county has not seen November tax collections yet, county auditor Pam Heeren said now would not be the time to spend funds on big-ticket items.

The county likewise took no action on a stripped down plan to solve the overcrowding issue in the courthouse.

Coordinator Jack Paul had brought the plan back to the board, maintaining it would cost about $2.4 million to move the court functions to more secure quarters in the second floor of the law enforcement building, which presently is unoccupied.

Earlier this fall the board declined to act on the whole plan, which would have entailed constructing a new two-story office building on the site of the old jail, and a major renovation and move of county office spaces at a cost of $10 million.

Commissioners were concerned with the vague financial figures in the plan Paul brought before the board, which he said could cost property owners as little as $5 per $100,000 of property valuation.

"If I was going to put an addition on my house and this is the only information I had, I wouldn't," Robinson said. "The most important part is interest. Should we be taking steps to secure a low interest rate or put people through the bidding process?"

"Why are we pushing so hard to do this?" questioned commissioner Don Carlson. He has recommended looking into leasing vacant real estate in the downtown area before spending the millions.

"I don't think we're pushing," Paul replied.

"How long are we going to keep the top of that LEC (law enforcement center) empty?" Johannsen asked.

The board asked Paul to firm up the financial figures and come back.

In other action, the board:

-Voted to advertise internally to fill the Veterans Service Office temporarily while the current officer, Dave W. Konshok, is deployed to Afghanistan next summer.

The board also publicly released a "memorandum of understanding" that arose from a closed door meeting with Konshok last month, prompted by numerous complaints from veterans concerned their needs were not being met due to Konshok's frequent absences from the office.

Konshok was out of the office all week for training. He had asked the board to postpone any decision on filling the position until he returned.

"I don't think the interim (position) has anything to do with the VSO," Robinson said in pushing ahead. "This week we're not covering the office."

The memorandum, agreed to by Konshok, requests that he track his time spent as both VSO and Emergency Management Director, to perform EM tasks only when the veterans files are caught up, remain in the office during office hours and to attend to veterans first.

"For the record, veteran clients always have taken first priority if I'm in the office," Konshok's formal reply stated. "We've always had a 'drop everything' policy where we immediately serve the client who walks through the door. If I'm not here, veterans are always asked if they'd like to schedule an appointment, or leave a number and receive a phone call. To date, no appointments have been missed."

Konshok then listed the committees he sits on and meetings he attends on a regular basis that take him out of the office regularly. He requested permission to be gone to attend six more training sessions and events he said an Emergency Management Director should go to. One was a three-day conference in St. Paul.

The board did not indicate how it would act on the requests for additional time away from the office,

Requirements for the interim post could exclude many county employees. The VSO is required to be a veteran.

"Our main concern is the vets need to be taken care of," Johannsen said.

The board hopes that whoever fills the interim position would be able to cover the office, even part-time, while Konshok is attending the events and conferences he requested in his reply.

-Approved a final draft of the county's new Subsurface Sewage Treatment System ordinance after a public hearing without any attendees.

"Either you've done a really good job of working this out with the public or you've kept it really quiet," Robinson told Environmental Services Officer Eric Buitenwerf.

-Took no action of a request by solid waste management director Vern Massie to raise the annual licensing fees for waste haulers and junkyard operations. The $25 fees have never been raised.

"I don't know of another license in the county that's $25," Massie told the board. He said some waste businesses have to be policed constantly using administrative time; others operate within the law.

"Is there a way of not penalizing the good ones the same as the bad ones" by raising the fees, Robinson questioned. "It's unfair some bum can cause pain and suffering and others are squeaky clean."

"If there's a reason to raise it, fine," said commissioner Dick Devine. "If we're just raising it because it's lower than others, that's not fine."

-The board also signed off on a controversial junkyard license application by Mike Lyle to operate an auto salvage yard and car parts business in Helga Township.

Lyle has incurred numerous violations over the past two years and has been embroiled in a lawsuit with the township over his operation of the business on Highway 71 North.

Lyle was required to cure any environmental issues he'd accumulated in the past, clean up oils spills, obtain permits and bonding and operate his business within the law.

"The neighborhood up there is still in turmoil and will be for a long time," Robinson observed.