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Hubbard County budget in good shape at year end

Hubbard County board members are, from left, Greg Larson, Lyle Robinson, chairman Dick Devine, Kathy Grell and vice chair Cal Johannsen. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

There was positive news from the negative yearend numbers in the Hubbard County budget.

The county didn't overspend as much as commissioners feared, although the revenue fund dipped into the rainy day fund by $359,680.05 from 2011.

Yearend revenues came in 3 percent above what was budgeted, thanks to PILT monies and County Program Aid, state monies the county doesn't generally rely on, so any monies are a plus.

Expenditures came in 30 percent higher than budgeted, which explained the shortfall.

"The 130 percent, you have some departments you didn't budget for and that's going to skew it, make it look different than it actually was," said auditor Pam Heeren.

"I don't think our revenues were bad overall," she added. "If you go by department, you're going to see that most of them were fair. There could be some outstanding accounts receivable so you have to sit down and study each and every one of them" to get the overall picture.

Commissioners, at the end of 2011, predicted and planned to go nearly $300,000 in the hole to play catch-up and allow certain departments to exceed their budgeted expenditures. The law enforcement operations figured prominently in that overage.

Since 1994 the county's revenue fund has only gone into the red twice, and once was for a major investment in Prime West Health, a provider network that serves low income Minnesotans and is owned by 13 counties.

"You have reserves for a rainy day, so to speak," Heeren said. "And going over $60,000 (of the anticipated $300,000), I guess I'm not real concerned about it. If you did it five, six years in a row I might worry about it."

There was also good news from the Social Services Department, which received 96.8 percent of projected revenues while using only 85 percent of anticipated expenditures.

"This is one of the best years I can recall," said Social Services Department head Daryl Bessler.

Childrens Services, typically a fairly high cost, has seen stabilization in out-of-home placement expenses from programs designed to keep children at home and work with distressed families.

Mental health costs have been reduced by a network of community behavioral hospitals taking patients in the region.

Detox costs went down as only $22,466 of the budgeted $60,000 for short-term stays at Pine Manors was spent.

But as hard economic times persist, requests for income maintenance continue to grow, Bessler indicated.

Spending the money

As Hubbard County moves into the future, tight-fisted commissioners are reconciling themselves to the fact that progress has a price.

At Wednesday's meeting, talk centered around building changes, building improvements, building renovations, service changes and modernizing.

"We're operating in the 1980s," said a frustrated board chair Dick Devine.

Commissioners agreed, "we should be examining everything we're doing," even small accounting tasks that cost more with delays.

"We need to compile a list of end results that we want," commissioner Lyle Robinson suggested.

The modernization issue

Assistant County Attorney Erika Randall came before the board to request a large screen TV and sound system for the district courtroom. The county is currently using a 30-year-old model hooked up to a VCR player.

"It's archaic," she told the board.

Last week during a civil trial, the Minneapolis attorneys involved had to bring a small U-Haul trailer's worth of equipment and exhibits, including a 55-inch flat screen TV set.

And because the courtroom doesn't have broadband access, exhibits mounted on foam core board had to be used instead of electronic ones.

For attorneys used to making Power Point demonstrations with high-falutin' audio and video, Internet access and other amenities, the Minneapolis attorneys expressed dismay at the pre-trial conference that they were heading to the boonies.

Randall related stories of jurors having their own pop-up monitors in front of them, counsel tables with laptops wired for such presentations and all fed to a wide screen viewable from all portions of the courtroom - but not here.

Commissioners groaned.

Robinson and Devine suggested improvements and equipment for the future, not just for now.

"We should do it right, for the long term," Robinson said.

Then board talk turned to a floor-wiring conduit when Randall said it's a safety hazard tripping over plug-ins and extension cords snaking over the courtroom floor.

She once tripped over a cord near the jury box during trial, Randall relayed.

The carpet needs replacing, badly, Randall reported.

Last week witnesses testifying in the civil trial had to be escorted by a bailiff to the stand, tiptoeing around banker's boxes full of files covering the floor area. It was clearly a hazardous situation.

"Are we talking about a remodel of the courtroom?" an incredulous Randall asked. "I'm happy you want it done bigger and better but I just want something done."

The board approved a $5,000 expenditure for the TV and sound system and accepted a $3,000 contribution from the Hubbard County Bar Association to help fund the project.

But they also agreed to look at the courtroom overall and bring it up to a modicum of modernity.

The space issues

The board also looked at the first architectural proposal to move the Social Services Department above the jail. Vetter Johnson Architects of Minneapolis showed its extensive history of courthouse and jail projects throughout the state.

No dollars estimates were available, but the project is estimated to cost $1 million to $2 million.

Numerous issues, all costing money, are yet to be resolved before the project gets underway, commissioners were reminded.

Should the county hire a construction manager to oversee the project and how should the county structure the bid packages to favor local contractors?

Those were among the considerations discussed. Architect Steve Johnson even proposed surveying local contractors to see what their specialties are, so that the bids could be tailored to attract the area trades. Because it is a public project, the work must be bid out, but Johnson and the board discussed ways to tailor bids for local workforces and trades.

Longer term issues revolve around a "Third Street promenade" that would direct people to the historic courthouse as the gateway to a government compound at the end of the street.

Energy efficiency is also a concern, for both the space above the jail and the administrative building, which will be renovated to accommodate a "one-stop shopping" concept on the main floor and the shifting of offices on the second and third floors.

Johnson referred to it as "backfilling the old space."

Entrances to both buildings must be planned, Johnson said. Currently the entrance to the law enforcement center takes you to a glassed in area for the sheriff, dispatch center and jail. An alternate stairway for employees isn't conducive to the public, Johnson suggested.

And the administrative building may need a second elevator if courthouse functions are separated from other county offices. An elevator alone is a ballpark cost of $100,000.

Security is also a concern and the county will need to spend additional funds to secure the safety of court personnel and county employees.

Timber sale

The county's first of three annual timber sales, conducted Tuesday, brought in $510,403.69 for the 821 acres auctioned at a price of $621 per acre, said Land Commissioner Mark Lohmeier.

A high number of bidders attended the sale, even though aspen prices were down 11 percent from the November auction. But jackpine prices rose 9 percent, Lohmeier said.

A representative of Potlatch attended the auction.

"There's demand out there for high quality saw logs," Lohmeier said. "Potlatch is buying them."

Commissioner Kathy Grell once again pressed Lohmeier to see how the county is disposing of its older aspen forests. She keeps urging a faster cut rate.

"It's not something you can do overnight," Lohmeier said. The county is leveling out the aspen acreage, he said, but doesn't want to log it to the point there would be a dry period for "50 to 60 years."

But that was still worrisome to commissioners after board member Cal Johannsen explained there's new technology that allows the harvesting of younger wood.

But loggers can strike deals with private landowners to clear forests and brush for biomass and other uses, Lohmeier pointed out.

Overtime report

Grell asked Heeren at the beginning of 2011 to compile a report to keep track of county employee overtime.

The 12-month compilation was presented to the board Wednesday, but was not particularly illuminating.

Highway and law enforcement employees regularly accrue overtime hours because of the inherent uncertainties in crime and the weather.

But because of the way overtime is recorded and used, the report potentially lists hours twice.

The county paid law enforcement officers for 2,472 hours of overtime in 2011; jailers 2,194 hours; highway employees for 6,040 hours and other workers such as welfare caseworkers lesser amounts. In total, 12,142.97 hours of overtime were paid.

But Heeren said the hours could have been accrued in the past.

"The report lists comp hours, which are newly accrued overtime, and overtime hours, which are those actually paid out. They can be one and the same," she said.

Grell has pushed the county to get a better handle on overtime hours and run departments with a minimum of pricey hours.

"In some of the departments if you accrue overtime you don't have to get paid for it then, Heeren said. "You can put it on the books. When you do that we show it as overtime."

But the way those hours are used skews any reporting, she admitted.

"We don't know when we pay these things out in the payroll whether we're paying out new hours or comped hours. I don't know any other way of doing it except to have these payroll clerks doing a lot of manual paperwork and I don't know if that would be easy to do.

"When they put hours down on their time sheets for us they put down overtime for such-and-such and they code it whether they want it accrued or paid and we don't know if they're old or new" hours, Heeren said.

Sarah Smith

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

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