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County debates expenditures for clothing, car repairs

Hubbard County commissioners and county department heads are increasingly scrutinizing how money is spent and business is conducted - and finding areas of disagreement that could bring about change.

Hubbard County commissioners and county department heads are increasingly scrutinizing how money is spent and business is conducted - and finding areas of disagreement that could bring about change.

The microscopic inspection began Wednesday with the first presentation of a monthly overtime report at the request of new commissioner Kathy Grell.

The Sheriff's Department, including the jail and dispatch center, accounted for 245 of the 247 hours reported for January. Departmental employees also accrued 122 comp hours, which can be banked for later use or partially compensated for if not used.

"Why is that normal?" a visibly disturbed Grell asked when commissioners assured her it was business as usual.

Under union contracts, officers called out for duty are paid a minimum of three hours of work, even if they close a matter in 10 minutes, commissioner Cal Johannsen explained.

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"It happens a lot," he said.

But much of those hours were spent in late December on a drowning incident on 3rd Crow Wing Lake, when numerous officers were dispatched to the scene.

And some overtime is accrued during state holiday campaigns to curb drunken driving and speeding and promote seat belt use. Snowmobile patrols are frequently underwritten by forestry and DNR funds. The holiday campaigns are reimbursed by the state, commissioners noted.

"Quitting time isn't quitting time," commissioner Dick Devine said. A former State Patrol officer, he said if an accident occurs near the end of an officer's shift, the officer stays on scene until the matter is cleared up.

"A full-time position is 160 hours," Grell pointed out. "To me 245 overtime hours and 122 comp hours is not right. I need to understand it to feel comfortable about it."

Grell wondered if there was some alternate way to staff people to minimize those expenditures.

The Highway Department amassed 724 hours of comp time in January.

"I understand emergencies," Grell said. Highway workers have plowed two plus feet of snow this winter.

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County Auditor Pam Heeren continued the discussion when she questioned highway department employees charging blue jeans at a local fleet store on a county charge account.

A "memo of understanding" to the department's union contract states employees each get a $125 clothing allowance to purchase "jackets, shirts and boots."

The provision has been in place a decade with revisions in 2004.

Jackets and shirts have a county logo on them are worn so the public can identify county workers knocking on doors and working in the area, Public Works Director Dave Olsonawski said. And employees, especially working out on the roads, must have non-slip boot soles.

Following IRS rules

The county learned last year that the IRS considers expenses for items such as jeans a taxable expenditure.

Heeren said the county must follow IRS dictates. And she questioned whether non-union clerical staff should be entitled to the same clothing allowances, even though the board in the past has voted to treat all employees alike, union or not.

The Solid Waste Department workers have been allowed to buy work pants, generally jeans. When workers are in an environment of hazardous materials, those pants likely won't be worn in a non-work setting, commissioner Lyle Robinson said.

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Workers out on the highway patching cracks with hot tar are lucky to get a day's use out of a pair of pants, he added.

But commissioners agreed to cut off the charge account immediately. And commissioner Dick Devine questioned whether office staff should be outfitted on the county's tab.

"Policies like this can so easily stray from the intent," said commissioner Kathy Grell.

"Charging doesn't look good to the public," commissioner Cal Johannsen said.

"I could be the one at fault," Olsonawski acknowledged. He interpreted the expenditures as for any apparel; meaning employees could also purchase pants, likely jeans.

"Are we going to continue to pay for jeans?" Heeren questioned. "I need to know that."

"Apparel can be anything, underwear and socks," Johannsen replied. "I think they need to wear some kind of pants to come to work."

Grell said if the county is purchasing some type of uniform, it should think about a contract vendor to save money.

Heeren said she was troubled over the expenditures when her office is pinching pennies to find enough money for postage. The auditor's office mails out property tax statements.

The discussion then evolved to snowmobile gear and whether the county should purchase gear for a trail officer.

"If we're going to require them to be out there in 35 below," the answer is yes, Robinson said.

Commissioners agreed to take a second look at the clothing policy when what are expected to be bruising union negotiations take place this spring.

Purchase orders and STS

But the discussion carried over when Sheriff Cory Aukes presented the commission bills for a squad car repair and replacement of a taser camera from 2010 totaling $2,200.

Johannsen questioned why the county spent $1,800 rebuilding a squad car's engine when the vehicle "might be worth $600 at auction."

"We were shocked," Aukes admitted upon receiving the bill. He asked if the expenses could come out of the 2010 sheriff's budget, which ended the year $170,000 under budget.

And he asked for the purchase of certain items for the Sentencing to Service program, in which inmates perform public works jobs. He asked if it could be paid for with funds from the 2010 underused budget.

Commissioners questioned where the public donations to STS were being spent. A state entity, STS cannot bill for work performed. But townships, churches and the state have given the program donations to cover the expenses of having public access beaches, parks and cemeteries cleaned up.

Those donated funds should pay the cost of overhead to repair mowers and replace equipment, commissioners reasoned, not county funds.

"Where does the STS revenue go?" Grell questioned, wondering why the donations don't show up as revenue in the program's budget.

"Into the black hole," Robinson replied.

"I don't like black holes," Grell countered.

Commissioners said at some point the 2010 books need to be closed. Last meeting it rolled $661,000 of unused county funds into the "designated unallocated fund" that pays for equipment and vehicles.

That fund will pay the repair bills, commissioners said.

But Grell said use of purchase orders, which the county rarely uses, could document what year and which department those expenses were earmarked for, rather than trying to carry over bills from late the previous year without knowing the amounts.

"We have no set system for purchase orders," county coordinator Deb Thompson said.

Robinson asked Aukes to come up with a fee schedule for STS work and "base your donations accordingly," he said.

State funds for the STS program were cut drastically last Legislative season, but the local crew can be self-supporting with donations, commissioners reasoned.

New deputy

Further money questions arose when Aukes wanted approval to hire Park Rapids police officer Dan May as the county's newest deputy, starting him as Step 3, then raising his pay four more levels after completion of a satisfactory six-month probationary period.

May has seven years of experience on the Park Rapids Police Department and would step in to a force where there have been numerous retirements lately.

"We're instantly turning into a very young department," Aukes said in making the pitch for May, the top choice out of three finalists.

He said May would have to take a pay cut to make the switch to the county and he thought that was unfair.

"There's tremendous advantage to hiring an experienced guy," Devine said. And he pointed out "you're not hiring an unknown."

"The issue is the precedent you're setting," Thompson said.

"You're changing the pay scale (of the position) because of the person filling it," Grell suggested.

"It's the value he's assigning to the work he can get out of the employee," Thompson said.

Aukes disagreed, saying each hiring is unique on a "case by case basis."

In the past the county has hired new employees at pay grades higher than the floor level and made concessions for vacations and raises.

"He's a fantastic officer," Aukes stressed.

Robinson pointed out to the board that Aukes was elected sheriff and has "to deal with his own budget."

If there's money in the budget to pay the new deputy, Robinson said the board should approve the hire. It did when Aukes assured them the funds were there.

In other business, the board:

n Approved a low bid of $166,444 for a new snow plow truck. The bid was from RDO Truck Center in Fargo, N.D. With tax, license and a trade-in of a 1989 truck, the purchase will be $177,388.86.

The board also grudgingly approved a bid for a Dodge truck from a Burnsville dealer when local bidders were at least $3,500 above the $21,251 price. In past cases local dealers have been allowed to meet the new bid but commissioners thought the prices were too far apart to ask a local business to shave $3,500 off its price tag.

n Approved a settlement appropriation of tax-forfeited lands that will give county parks and recreation more money.

The county gets an average net of $530,000 annually from TFL. Sixty percent of those funds go to the county, townships and schools.

The remaining 40 percent goes to forest development and parks & rec, which no longer gets a tax levy apportionment.

n Approved a joint powers agreement for Hubbard County to join the West Central Minnesota Narcotics Task Force with dues of $1,500 that will be paid from drug forfeiture funds. That task force will operate in the south part of Hubbard County. The Paul Bunyan Task Force out of Bemidji conducts drug enforcement in the north half, Aukes said.

n Heard from Community Health Director RaeAnn Mayer that flu activity is down compared to last year, but health officials are keeping an eye on pertussis cases.

n Adopted a timber extension policy for loggers having trouble getting into some swampy areas that have not frozen over this winter.

n Learned that recycling and municipal solid waste collections were down significantly in 2010, mainly due to the economy.

n Authorized the highway department to explore bituminous prices for the eventual work on County 39, the Kabekona Lake project. Olsonawski told the board eminent domain proceedings might be necessary to acquire all the right-of-way needed. One family living on the road has been staunchly opposed to the project.

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