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Commissioners want to merge victims services, attorney

County Attorney Don Dearstyne and Victims Services advocate Jill Christenson appeared before last week's county board to discuss whether their departments should merge. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

The Hubbard County Crime Victims Services is a one-woman department that generates a considerable amount of revenue.

But none of those funds can be used to improve its bottom line.

So last week Hubbard County commissioners got a lesson in advocacy.

Troubled that the department keeps running in the red, commissioners suggested that Jill Christenson, the Victims Services Advocate, merge her unit into the County Attorney's office, the department she actually works out of.

Commissioner Kathy Grell said in 2010, the office ran a $5,000 deficit that doubled to $10,000 in 2011. By 2013, the projected deficit will be $15,000, Grell maintained.

"You just can't keep going into the hole," she told County Attorney Don Dearstyne and Christenson.

While Grell acknowledged the office has a "vital importance" to the county, "year after year after year it's going into the hole," she pointed out.

The department's annual budget for 2013 is anticipated to be around $56,000.

A state grant covers $42,000. Commissioners balked at levying the additional $14,000 and cut that by $4,000. The services are mandated by law.

"The services of Ms. Christenson are invaluable in case preparation with victims and all witnesses when the time comes to take a case to trial," Dearstyne indicated in a written memo to the board. He said Christenson has saved the county more than $4,000 alone in officer overtime. She contacts all trial witnesses and schedules their appearances on the witness stand, which officers say they appreciate greatly.

The position became a full-time county job in 2005 or 2006, Dearstyne estimated. Since Christenson has had the position at least a decade, she is now at the top of the county pay scale.

The money she generates reimburses crime victims, several of which wrote letters in support of her position. She has served up to 400 victims a year, Dearstyne said.

Victims of the Big Wolf Resort scam were fully reimbursed when a prospective manager converted almost $17,000 of deposits to his own use. Many were Twin Cities residents who saw the Hubbard County resort advertised on the Internet and booked rooms. The resort has been mired in foreclosure proceedings, but Christenson was able to recover the loss as part of a restitution order.

But Christenson's time, according to victims of domestic abuse, is most valuable helping them get through the trauma of a trial and their recovery, one victim indicated.

"Somehow we have to work it out one way or another," commissioner Cal Johannsen said.

"It's always been covered some way as if it's going to be recovered and it's not going to be," Grell said.

Dearstyne is trying to see if the departments can merge, but he suggested the services rendered on behalf of crime victims might be worth levying for.

Sarah Smith

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

(218) 732-3364