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County continues on steady path to harvest old aspen

Logger Jeff Dudley harvested a forest near the Gulch in northern Hubbard County last summer. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

PrimeWest Health, a health and social services provider network spanning 13 counties including Hubbard, may be ready to take a larger step into the health care arena - offering health insurance.

That was the announcement by Hubbard County commissioner Kathy Grell, who serves on the PrimeWest board.

Grell said the network is efficient at delivering providers to the consortium, and would likely do well in the insurance game.

PrimeWest officials could not be reached in time for publication for a comment.

Hubbard County bought into PrimeWest several years ago and is considered a part owner of the network. Commissioners and Social Services Director Daryl Bessler are generally satisfied with the network's performance and cost savings.

"I still think we're five to six years away from doing this but it could drive competitors' costs down so even if we lose, we win," commissioner Lyle Robinson said.

Grell said the goal would be to create medical insurance for all county employers that would be cost effective. At least 5,000 would need to be enrolled, she said, based on past studies of the issue. The plan could also cover schools and large employers. County-based purchasing could enhance the clout in receiving favorable rates, commissioners agreed.

In other business, the board:

n Heard the recent timber auction, the county's third and final of 2011, brought in $448,129.44 from 13 bidders, a smaller number than in the past.

Land Commissioner Mark Lohmeier said the average price of mixed aspen at $37.44 was up 50 percent from a year ago and up 11 percent from the June auction.

In all, 670 acres were auctioned off. The aspen is believed to be 80 years old.

The county has been pushing Lohmeier to clear out the old wood in the forests, which is typically not well received at area lumber mills.

"Our aspen goal is 1,200 (acres a year) and we're at 99 percent of that," Lohmeier said. "This is an accelerated rate."

He warned commissioners that forest management looks at long-term trends of 100 years.

"If we do the allowable cut we never get rid of the old," commissioner Kathy Grell said.

"There is a point where we have a dip (in forest age) but that's a way down the road," commissioner Cal Johannsen said.

There also has been a concern that loggers are mixing birch in with popple to obtain the higher price of the aspen at the mill. The woods are very similar in appearance.

Lohmeier acknowledged that is occurring but said, "It's not as clear of a profit margin" so the incentive to mix loads is diminishing.

Commissioner Lyle Robinson said many of the smaller loggers are profiting from selling firewood because the markup is huge.

n Allowed Sheriff Cory Aukes to increase his stable of reserve jailer/dispatchers from 10 to 15. These are the officers that would be called in to fill a shift in case of a planned illness or vacation.

He said the purpose of increasing the reserve list is to have more employees to choose from. Since some are working full-time in Wadena County, they can't always be available for Hubbard County, he said.

But the point is to use more part-timers to fill slots, cutting down on overtime.

"I want to see a direct correlation" between reduced overtime and the part-time staff, Grell said.

She has been critical of the law enforcement budget and overtime.

"There are lots of ways we can cut costs," Robinson said. "You have an accident and everybody responds."

One officer is investigating the accident; the rest are socializing at the roadside, Robinson noted, with their squad cars burning gas. It's something taxpayers notice, he added.

Aukes also asked for two commissioners to review a pending jail contract with an outside county to house more inmates in Hubbard County.

He said, however, entering the new contract would involve some increased costs for the jail.

n Heard from independent auditor Colleen Hoffman the county is in good shape. But she suggested it was time to consolidate the county's three large funds into one entity.

Presently the county has a revenue fund, a road and bridge fund and a fund for Social Services. All were audited.

But Rhonda Anstine, the highway department's accountant, said merging the departments could be labor intensive at a time when the county is forbidding employees to incur overtime. She questioned the necessity.

"You're very lucky" to have good employees, Hoffman told the board.

"People are being asked to do more. You should recognize your gems."

Commissioners encouraged staff members present to continue to consolidate the bookkeeping so journal entries in all departments can correspond to the penny with the county's actual balance.

Hoffman said to date, there has never been a reconciliation of those two.

n Amended the Shoreland Management Ordinance to allow larger sewer lines into garages. Under the old ordinance, a 2-inch line was the maximum allowed.

Now a garage can have the same size of lines as the house.

Grell worried about policing the matter, to make sure garages were not being converted to extra living space now that full bathrooms would be allowed.

"We don't want it to be an automatic second cabin on the property," Robinson warned.

Environmental Services Officer Eric Buitenwerf said enforcement would be similar to other cases. The department could only enforce any abuses via a complaint filed with his office and a subsequent search warrant to view the property.

"We need to be sure by solving one problem we didn't create another," Robinson said.

"We don't want garages to turn into living space," Grell said.

n Heard from public health coordinator Raeann Mayer that the flu season is upon us and that ample vaccinations are available for the flu strains that have been prevalent in past years.

Mayer also said the department is seeking national accreditation to achieve national standards for public health.

In the future, she said, obtaining some grant funds may be conditional of being nationally accredited.

n Referred consideration of an ordinance permitting mini trucks on all county and city roads to the Planning Commission.

Mini trucks are gaining in popularity, with mileage close to 100 mpg, and they can be driven on select highways but not in town.

n Learned that delays in state distribution, likely due to the government shutdown, could cause some headaches yearend.

Treasurer Lorretta Mattson said licenses were to be mailed out Friday.

Johannsen said liquor establishments may need "some leeway" to continue operating through the new year.

Sarah Smith

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

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