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County department heads begin 2011 budget process

If the "Big 3" are any indication, Hubbard County department heads will once again offer meager budgets for 2011.

County commissioners met with the heads of the Highway Department, Social Services and Law Enforcement Wednesday to begin the budgeting process. They are the three largest county departments.

And on their wish lists, county engineer Dave Olsonawski would like an extra $300,000 to sock into a county road improvement fund; Sheriff Frank Homer would like to add the officer he's been without for the past year.

Through attrition and promotion, the department has been one officer short since former sheriff Gary Mills retired in the spring of 2009.

Homer told the board he'd like a second investigator to handle white-collar crimes or another road deputy since the county has been trying to provide 24/7 coverage this year.

Homer said his office has been inundated with reports of scams, telemarketing calls that are questionable, and e-mail offers "too good to be true."

And maybe a vehicle or two thrown in for good measure, both men said, as the county replaces squad cars and road trucks that are aging.

"We'll let you know how much you have to cut this," board chair Lyle Robinson told Olsonawski, only partly in jest.

Hubbard County board members have held a tight fiscal line for the past two years as the national and local economies soured.

Employees will get a 3 percent raise as the last year of a union contract, but commissioners have warned department heads they may not get the same since they're considered at will employees.

Overall, the county has been in good fiscal shape because commissioners and department heads have towed the line.

Last year the commission took all departmental vehicle purchases from each separate budget and put the amounts into the general fund, which they oversee.

"It's been working well," auditor Pam Heeren told the board Wednesday. "They have to justify their purchases, which is good."

Other big-ticket items such as equipment and computers also are paid for out of that fund.

Social Services Director Daryl Bessler said his staff will need to upgrade its computers this year, possibly purchasing two dozen new.

But Bessler earlier in the day presented figures showing his staff case management earnings have increased from $18,202.96 per month a decade ago to and anticipated $65,709.98 per month this year.

The county's involvement in PrimeWest Health, a network serving 13 Minnesota counties, is one reason, Bessler said. The county bought into the partnership starting in 2008. Prime West provides care management services to county social services and public health providers.

The county provides administrative services for Prime West for which it is compensated.

Another reason is that county social workers have contracted to process MinnesotaCare applications. That's the state health plan low-income persons.

While those ventures have brought in revenue, they have also added to the caseloads of social and financial workers, who are now averaging 200+ files apiece.

Robinson worried about burnout in the staff.

"By taking on more work we've become our own worst enemy," Robinson told Bessler.

But Bessler said part of the motivation is that local workers can process applications for assistance more quickly. If done through the state, many people can wait up to three months for the state health plan.

"That can put them in a real bad hole financially," he said.

The county will also receive some County Program Aid this year although it wasn't counting on any funds.

County Program Aid was cut during the last Legislative session as the state plunged further into debt, estimated at $7 billion over the next biennium.

For 2010 the county budgeted $552,326. It will receive $273,058, Heeren told the board.

Another bright spot in the county's finances is that health benefits will rise only 6.7 percent, not the anticipated 13.

"Going to high deductible health plans saves money," interim coordinator Debbie Thompson told the board.

More meetings with other department heads will take place in the fall as commissioners determine how much they have to tighten the county's belt.

Sarah Smith

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

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