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Board looks into second phase of renovation project

Hubbard County's 38-year-old office building is in need of repairs. County commissioners are looking into whether it's financially feasible at this time to move the main entrance to the south side of the building and rework the floors, moving offices around and consolidating certain functions. This is the east entrance that currently is used as the main access point to government offices. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

As the first phase of a county building renovation nears completion, commissioners voted Wednesday to see if the second phase is possible due to a "perfect storm" of factors.

"We should look into doing it now to take advantage of favorable bids and low interest rates," said Hubbard County commissioner Kathy Grell.

"In five years we may not be able to afford it."

Two proposals have been floated for renovation of the county's 38-year-old office building. Both would entail a new entrance to the south wall of the building.

One would cost $3.6 million. The second would be $4.8 million.

"It fixes the security issues having one south entrance," commissioner Greg Larson said.

"If we act now we're really doing it prudently," Grell said.

She presented a comprehensive case as to why the county could afford to do it, deflecting the stumped looks of her fellow board members.

"We have $2 million in our building fund," she told the board. "We have $1.3 million to $1.4 million in our maintenance fund."

She calculated interest savings of $63,000 annually and energy savings at $45,000, leaving an annual savings of $108,000.

Financing the cheaper option would cost the county $60,000 in annual payments, she estimated. It would be offset by the savings. Financing the second option at 1.5 percent would leave the county with an annual payment of $140,000.

"That's one squad car," Larson said. "We need to take the next step and look at it."

Board member Cal Johannsen said the county should get the city's financial analysts involved "to see if Kathy was actually typing in the right numbers."

"I'm not one that believes in putting on Band-aids," board chair Dick Devine said, noting the county will have added revenues coming in from increased timber sales.

The board, with Lyle Robinson absent, voted 4-0 to get the financial analysts involved and see whether the county could get a favorable bonding rate for the work.

In other business, the board:

n Authorized a recount of Helga Township votes on Measure 2, whether a new town hall should be built. The yes votes were 398; no votes were 400. The township pays for the recount.

Cass Lake School District 115 will hold a recount on another close vote, with costs borne by the district.

And Laporte School District will hold a special election Dec. 18 for a question that was not on the November ballot.

n Authorized levying up to about $12,000 for veterans transportation costs.

Social Services Director Daryl Bessler and Veterans Service Officer Greg Remus said many vets qualify for public assistance anyway.

"If you don't fund it, it'll come back on us for general public transportation," Bessler said. Most veterans qualify to use the Heartland Express bus for low- income ridership, which is a county program.

"The program has grown," Bessler said. "Vets should have as much (access) as everybody else to transportation."

Remus said he has around $2,300 in funding to use, after a state program to transport vets to doctors' appointments was cut off for 2013.

"The U.S. spent $10.5 million to $14.6 million on veterans in Hubbard County," Remus noted. Funds for compensation and pensions "get spent here," he added. "If vets can't get transportation funding they would go back on medical assistance" and state and county programs would pickup the tab.

Although county social services does get some reimbursement, Remus worries that vets' quality of care might suffer.

A frustrated Grell asked, "How many things are we gonna be asked to pick up? I like to support the vets," but she said the state trend of forcing costs on local government is getting to be onerous.

The Park Rapids American Legion has pledged $1,000 toward the transportation program, and commissioners wondered if any other civic groups could get involved.

n Noted that requests for public assistance are up for October, a trend that alarms Bessler.

Caseloads for October were up significantly, including requests for cash assistance, food support, health care programs and other economic assistance.

"We're seeing a lot more out-of-state people," Bessler said.

But he noted that Hubbard County has a lot of working poor, employed persons who still qualify for public assistance.

"We've got people working at the potato plant who are still eligible for our programs," Bessler said, pointing out one of a number of employers whose workforce needs assistance.

n Authorized spending $42,000 for radio interoperability and recording equipment for the Sheriff's Department. The county, and all counties, are in the process of converting to a narrowband radio system by yearend.

Sheriff Cory Aukes also said he's looking into a different public warning system called Code Red. The county has had Global Connect for a little over a year and used it in emergency cases about 10 times. It was used last week to alert residents to look for a missing Nevis woman who was eventually found. It is also used to warn of severe weather.

"It's a fantastic system," Aukes said. "But Code Red is faster and it can do non-emergency notices."

Aukes said if the department wants to use the Global Connect system for non-emergency informational messages, it would have to pay a separate cost.

And he said he's worried about county-wide notification.

With Global Connect "it takes an hour and a half to notify all 13,000 households," Aukes noted. With a fast-moving weather system, a storm could pass over before some residents get the notice.

"With the ability to use it a lot more, we will," he said of the Code Red system. The system would run around $8,500 annually. The board took it under advisement.

"The speed thing to me is a huge benefit," Aukes urged the board in supporting the Code Red program.

n Discussed the process of streamlining the new Land Records Department as the county faces several retirements and resignations in key offices that will eventually merge. No vacancies were filled yet.

"We need to get away from the mentality that we need more money to do more work," Johannsen said. Many employees are undergoing cross-training to fill in at a variety of county functions.

"We need to look at efficiency."

But county Assessor Bob Hansen, who needs a replacement worker, said much of the work involves repetition. "Right now we have five counters to maintain," he said. Until the county office building is renovated, it will be impossible to shuffle people around.

Hansen said while multi-tasking might save money, county services could suffer if employees are frequently switched around to new tasks.

He said the county mindset should not be, "Now who is available?"

n Authorized a Dist. 4 replacement member to the Board of Adjustment. Tim Johnson, an at-large member of the Planning Commission, will move into the seat vacated by Charles Knight last week.

But the county will need a new Planning Commission member and the board deadlocked over whether it should advertise the position, or let interested persons approach county commissioners, who make the appointments.

n Learned it may not be feasible to merge the County Attorney's Office with the Victims Services Coordinator because it "would be a bookkeeping nightmare."

Commissioners agreed informally to restore funding cut from the Victims Services office, but took no formal vote. The office regularly runs into the red and commissioners want to find a more stable funding source.

Sarah Smith

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

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