Cass County Board: County departments in good shape at halfway point of 2017

BACKUS -- Cass County's spending has run in the first half of this year about as the 2017 budget projected, according to Sandra Norikane, chief financial officer.

BACKUS - Cass County's spending has run in the first half of this year about as the 2017 budget projected, according to Sandra Norikane, chief financial officer.

Some departments are a little over. This is offset by some being a little under budget, Norikane said.

County commissioners, citizen budget committee members and county department heads met Friday at Backus for their annual planning retreat. They reviewed each department's operations in the past year, current situation and expected 2018 changes.

Receipts from the half-cent local option sales tax for highways brought in over $1.2 million in 2016, Norikane said. This will mean the county board can reduce the property tax levy for highways in 2018 by at least $220,000 under the board's current policy, she said.

Administrator Joshua Stevenson said he will ask the budget committee and county board as a part of the 2018 budget planning later this summer for input on whether the county should start levying now for future building needs to expand the capital fund.


The currently debt-free county has not issued bonds to construct a building since the jail was built in the 1980s. Stevenson said current contracts to house some Cass inmates in other counties appears to remain more cost effective for the next eight to 10 years than building a new Cass jail.

Cass has built the current Health, Human and Veterans Services building and an addition to it, the Land Department building and replaced some Highway Department garages with cash on hand in the last 30 years.

The county has been spending about $100,000 per year to maintain the existing courthouse/jail complex at Walker in recent years.

Staff needs some input from the commissioners and budget committee for criteria to determine when it will become more cost effective to build a new jail or courthouse than to continue maintaining the current structure, Stevenson said.

Cass' turnover of supervisor personnel in the last two years is expected to continue to trickle down through all ranks of employees in the next few years, he reported. The average age of county employees is 58 years old, he said.

The county has provided leadership training for new managers and supervisors, he said.

Requests for electronic county data have increased as more people rely more on their smartphones to get information, according to Stevenson. Counties need to increase transparency to offset a general decrease of trust from the public, he added.

Counties gained overall state funding from the recently-concluded legislative session, Stevenson said.


Assessor Mark Peterson reported market property values are stable. New construction value is up 6 percent and new home starts, up 36 percent. Real estate sales were up 17 percent the first quarter and foreclosures, down 18 percent.

Three of the county's land appraisers have completed higher required state certification. With the extension this year for the extra training, Peterson said he expects three additional existing employees will finish their training easily before the new 2022, state deadline.

The Legislature exempted the first $100,000 of commercial and industrial properties from the state general property tax, Peterson reported.

Though there have been no incidents in Cass County, Peterson said his employees are taking training on how to deal with people who might object to appraisers coming onto their property. Employee safety is a primary concern, he said.

County Attorney Christopher Strandlie has seen an increase in child protection cases and civil commitments resulting from mental health issues. Recently added staff has made it possible to meet current needs, he said.

He is looking at updating e-filing and e-discovery software, because the current case management system does not meet his department's needs. His is one department where retirements are not expected in the next five years, he said.

Auditor-Treasurer Sharon Anderson said she will need to use social media more to try to inform people about mail ballot procedures, so people do not throw out their mailed ballot materials. Too many people thought the ballots were just junk mail in the 2016 election, she said.

Drainage system administration is no longer optional when utilities cross them, she said, citing new state legislation.


Numerous changes to tax forfeiture administration include allowing counties to offer financial counseling to people who repeatedly sign confession of judgment when they fail to pay their taxes, Anderson said.

Money the state approved to help pay for new voting equipment likely will cover about 25 percent of Cass' costs, she said. Anderson is cross training employees in her department as a part of expected future retirements.

Central Services Director Tim Richardson reported fuel prices appear relatively stable. He said he expects propane to rise about 15 cents this fall.

Internet and network security are time consuming and expensive, he said, causing concern about rising costs.

Cass' government buildings in Walker are in generally good condition after carpet and some sidewalk, mechanical and other replacements, according to Richardson.

Richardson continually evaluates costs for storing data locally versus off-campus.

Rochelle Fuller spoke for court administration in Court Administrator Robert Sommerville's absence. She said most court filing is done electronically now.

That department is looking into internet telephone service to lower their costs, Fuller said.


Adjustable work surfaces are being installed this week for employees, she added.

The Legislature added a judge who will be based at Bemidji, she noted, and provided funding for treatment courts, cybersecurity, psychological examinations and increased funding for interpreters, according to Fuller.

Cass only needs interpreters about four or five times a year, she said. The lack of local professionals for psychological exams means Cass has to get someone to travel here from the Twin Cities, she said. Encouraging professionals to locate in this region will be a 2018 priority.

Environmental Services Director John Ringle said his staff is still able to handle the workload, despite a 20 percent increase in permits issued the first quarter this year.

Public nuisances (junk in yards) continue to be difficult to enforce, he said.

The Legislature passed a law this year enabling the auditor-treasurer to check land splits to ensure the lots meet zoning size requirements. If they do not, the owner cannot get permits to build on them, Ringle said.

Ringle plans to seek an increase for the fee charge for after-the-fact permits. While more people are complying with zoning laws than in past years, he said employee time spent on these is more than the county currently charges to people who built without a permit.

He expects to be able to offer online permit applications within the coming year.


Michelle Piprude, acting health, human and veterans services director, reported that service needs continue to rise as the state continues to shift costs to the counties. Human services state spending was cut $463 million for the first biennium, she said.

Public health state funding was maintained, with a slight increase for family home visits to first-time mothers.

There was a shift of MnChoices from the state to counties, according to Heidi Tumberg, fiscal supervisor. In the coming year, the department will focus on improving technology to increase efficiency and effectiveness.

HHVS plans to try to decrease high staff turnover by coaching and mentoring newly hired employees, Piprude said.

County Engineer Darrick Anderson reported service delivery for highways seems to be adequate based on public feedback.

He said $61 million of the state's 2018 funding for bridges will go to one bridge in the state, leaving only $13 million for the rest of the state to share this year. Cass has one bridge high on the needs list, but whether it gets approved will depend on other needs throughout the state.

The federal protection of pollinators will have an impact on counties' ability to mow ditches and spray for noxious weeds, he predicted.

Anderson plans to continue to pursue partnering with Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, the U.S. Forest Service, townships, cities and neighboring counties to develop cost saving and sharing highway projects.


With retirements coming, he is trying to get technician interns to work for Cass County this year in the hope they may become permanent employees in the future. There is a statewide shortage of highway technicians, he said.

The local option sales tax paid for $625,000 in road improvements in 2016, he said.

Jennifer Schroeder, human resources, said the county expects to offer online access for employees to see their time cards and view their pay stubs online and to make changes to their deductions.

Human resources will revamp employee orientation in 2018, make adjustments to comply with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act and work with other county employees and commissioners to re-write the county's personnel policy.

Land Commissioner Kirk Titus reported customer contacts have increased, especially from recreational trail users. He expects strong timber sales to continue.

The Legislature increased state payments in lieu of taxes from $1.50 per acre to $2 per acre and now will allow the sale of some tax forfeited lake lots without requiring special state legislation, according to Titus.

Cass will get $40,000 in forest road maintenance state money, he said.

Northern long-eared bat mortality has become a greater concern here after a 70 percent mortality rate was recorded at Sudan Mine. Titus will continue to work on a land exchange involving the state, Beltrami and Hubbard counties in 2018, Cass' forest inventory and land sales.

Probation Director Jim Schneider noted a spike in drug related and repeat domestic assault cases. DWI offenses are level, he said.

With success in the juvenile diversion program to keep youths out of the juvenile justice system, Schneider would like to see that expanded.

The state's share of reimbursements continues to decline for probation, he said. State mental health funding is only starting to be addressed. There needs to be more awareness of statewide needs, he said.

Cass' grant for pre-trial screening was renewed.

He hopes to see a drug court added to Cass' offering of a driving while intoxicated court in 2018. Like the DWI court, the drug court would be a partnership with Leech Lake Band.

County Recorder Katie Norby said, after a decline in 2016, filing of abstracts, Torrens and passport renewals are all up so far this year.

She expects one retirement in her office next year.

Once the county's software vendor allows color images, Norby said, Cass will be able to offer an online check of all county property ownership records online.

Chief Deputy Erick Hoglund said the sheriff's office has seen the same increase in recreational trail use as the land department, but from the side of increased all-terrain vehicle accidents. The machines are bigger and faster, he said.

Law enforcement officers are trying to educate riders about safety, he said.

The sheriff's department has had a difficult time finding qualified applicants to fill vacancies in all of its divisions, Hoglund said. There are fewer students training to become officers, he added.

Inmate population is up, especially among females, he said, making it difficult to find open cells to house women in area jails, he said. Female inmate increase is a statewide trend, he added.

Officers now are required to take 16 hours of state training on crisis response, conflict management and cultural diversity as a part of their 48 hours every three years to keep a state Peace Officers Standards and Training certification, Hoglund reported.

Increasing use of methamphetamines and heroin are driving the overall increase in offenders in general and the higher percentage of women inmates, he said. Cass officers have training in the use of opioid antidote injections.

He echoed Schneider's view that there needs to be better awareness about the lack of enough mental health facilities, Hoglund said.

On the issue of oil pipeline protesters seen in other areas, Hoglund praised the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe for putting out notice on social media that meetings being held locally are for the local residents to have an opportunity to voice their opinions, not for outsiders.


2018 Budget Timetable

July 12 - Preparation packets will be released to department heads.

Aug. 4 - Department requests returned to administrator.

Aug. 18 and 25 - Citizen Budget Committee evaluates requests and prepares a recommended levy.

Sept, 5 - County Board sets preliminary levy.

Oct. 13 and 27 - Citizen Budget Committee refines requests with department heads to fit within levy.

November - Preliminary levy proposed taxes mailed to taxpayers.

Dec. 7 - Public hearing on proposed levy and budget.

Dec. 19-County Board adopts final levy.

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