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County to hire new financial worker

After a year of penny pinching, a hiring freeze and self-deprivation, Hubbard County officials finally loosened up the purse strings Wednesday.

But not by much.

A burgeoning caseload persists for Hubbard County Social Services, necessitating the hiring of another financial caseworker that will process requests for public assistance.

In 2000, caseworkers shouldered an average of 147 cases each; in 2009 that number had risen to 235. Social Services Director Daryl Bessler said it's an alarming trend that could cost the department some compliance funding if employees can't keep pace with the demands of their rising workloads.

"We still have to process the cases" even if applicants are ultimately found to be ineligible, Bessler said. "You have to check their assets, bank accounts, vehicles."

But Bessler said the meticulous work is necessary.

'We rarely lose an appeal" of eligibility, he said.

As the number of cases and requests for food stamps and medical assistance continues to grow, "we're just getting further and further behind," he told the county board Wednesday. "We're getting buried."

As a recipient of federal and state funding, certain processing timelines must be met, he said, and the department gets audited for quality control compliance.

"We're making errors, I would guess," he admitted.

And he doesn't envision the trend slowing down.

"I don't see the country heading in the direction where the private sector is creating enough jobs" to offset rising unemployment rates, he said.

"We're putting off the inevitable, fooling ourselves," said board chair Lyle Robinson.

Requests for public assistance rose by 20 in November.

"Historically the winter is not a good time for us," Bessler said. "The quality of our efforts is starting to suffer."

"If you truly know it isn't gonna turn around, you've gotta take steps," Robinson said. "You gotta bite the bullet. Next month you'll have 20 more cases."

Bessler said he doesn't see the economy turning around in the next two years. "It's just picking up steam," he said.

Bessler will advertise for the financial worker and is in the process of replacing his longtime financial manager, who retires early next year.

The board meanwhile voted to spend $80,000 to replace two Sheriff's Department squad cars and an SUV in the fleet. It purchased no new vehicles last year.

The department will retrofit items such as light bars, cages and other equipment into the new vehicles to save taxpayer money.

The age of the department's vehicle fleet was becoming a safety concern to both the board and road deputies.

"It's painful buying cars but not buying them is more painful," commissioner Dick Devine said. "You don't want them blowing up and stuff. It behooves us to replace them when we can."

The board was assured the department needs a new SUV. Last winter, Sheriff Frank Homer told commissioners, the SUV was the only vehicle that could get around in the deep snow.

The maintenance costs are relatively equal for an SUV and the Ford Crown Victorias deputies use, Homer assured the board.

"It's a matter of public safety," said commissioner Greg Larson, in voting to approve the purchase.

In other action, the board:

-Performed an open-door evaluation of the sheriff, appointed seven months ago to fill the vacancy that arose when Gary Mills took early retirement due to health reasons.

The board had nothing but good things to say about and to Homer.

"When you came on I thought you'd be good," commissioner Don Carlson said. "You've been better than I expected."

Robinson thanked Homer for bringing a businesslike approach to the department. And all five commissioners praised the road deputies and staff for a job well done.

"Everything I've heard is positive," Larson said.

The department is transitioning to 24/7 patrols early next year. Five days a week deputies will be on the roads until 6 a.m. beginning in January.

-Heard that H1N1 activity has peaked, but a third wave of the flu virus could occur, community health director Chris Broeker said.

"We have vaccinated 5,000 in the county to date," she said. "That's about 35 percent."

More H1N1 vaccine should arrive after the first of the year, Broeker said, and public clinics will be set up then.

Seasonal flu vaccines may become available, too, she said.

Grade school children have been receiving the H1N1 vaccine in Park Rapids, Nevis and Laporte.