Cass County Board looks ahead to challenges, needs and plans

BACKUS -- Difficulty filling job vacancies was a recurring theme Friday, June 28, as Cass County department heads reported trends during the county's annual planning meeting.

Exterior of Cass County Courthouse in Walker.
Brainerd Dispatch file photo
Brainerd Dispatch

BACKUS - Difficulty filling job vacancies was a recurring theme Friday, June 28, as Cass County department heads reported trends during the county's annual planning meeting.

This comes at a time of low unemployment overlapping many retirements for long-time employees.

Administrator Joshua Stevenson said overall the county staff is generally much younger today than a few years ago. Nearly every department reported at least one pending retirement coming this year.

It has not seemed to matter whether the job requires a master's degree or only a high school diploma, he said, though positions requiring special training or experience are the most challenging.

The following are departmental reports:



Sheriff Tom Burch said two deputies have taken special training to preliminarily identify people driving while under the influence of drugs, an increasing problem. Once properly identified, the subject can then be required to take a blood test, he explained.

Violent crime is up, driven by gang activity. There are two drive-by shootings reported daily now, he said. As older gang members complete their prison time and are released, he said, those people are returning to the community and attempting to train new recruits into gangs.

Recreational vehicle use, both all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles, is up, leading to more accidents.

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2020 budget schedules

Cass County's five citizen appointees and two county commissioners (budget committee) will receive departmental requests and prepare a proposed 2020 county budget and levy this summer.

The county board then sets a preliminary levy in September before the budget committee makes additional budget changes in October. The board will hold a public hearing before adopting a final budget and levy in December.


That schedule is as follows:

• Aug. 16, 23 and 30 - Budget committee reviews requests and prepares the preliminary budget and levy,

• Sept. 3 - County Board sets preliminary levy,

• Oct. 11 and 25 - Budget committee makes additional budget changes,

• November - Preliminary levy information mailed to taxpayers,

• Dec. 5 - Public hearing on proposed budget,

• Dec. 17 - County board sets final levy and budget.

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The sheriff has an agreement with North Ambulance Service to enable dispatchers to transfer calls to emergency medical technicians who can walk 911 callers through giving CPR over the telephone.

Burch sees a potential need for extra law enforcement services if the Enbridge's Line 3 pipeline is approved to be installed through the county.


Director Jim Schneider sees success from the DWI Court as there are fewer repeat offender driving while intoxicated from alcohol cases being referred to probation over the last 10 years.

All types of drug offense filings, however, remain high.

Schneider sees the pretrial release program as succeeding under a four-year trial, which ends after this year. He will apply for another grant to extend it.

Judges will continue to appoint probation officers, but he said the judges no longer will manage these officers once appointed, but rather will have counties set salaries and oversee those officers.

Court Administration


Kayla Litter reported that having some county court cases at the Leech Lake Tribal Justice Center in Cass Lake is going well. Fewer people are missing court dates since court has been scheduled closer to their home on the reservation, she said.

A new court administrator will be appointed this summer. Staff turnover has been high, with two or three more retirements planned this year.

County Attorney

Attorney Ben Lindstrom reported the number of case appeals has risen. He successfully argued one case before the Minnesota Supreme Court in the last year.

With a strong economy, he said more land use issues are arising, which need legal intervention.

He also has seen a rise in controlled substance DWIs, noting drug DWI cases are more difficult to prosecute than those involving alcohol. Drug case volume in general is up.

Lindstrom is expanding his community outreach with a Facebook page. He also plans to visit city council meetings this year.

Health, Human, Veterans Services


Director Michele Piprude reported that agency is evaluating both chemical dependency and mental health for adults, including a program for incoming jail inmates to ensure a coordinated support program for them.

Employees have been cross trained in human services, so a person seeking assistance needs see only one employee to get help with income support, housing help, food or medical assistance.

The department emphasizes documenting all work completed, so the county does not lose any potential state or federal reimbursement for their programs, she said. Staff also tracks each day each child attends day care, so the county does not pay for days a child is absent from day care.

Piprude said she expects to get some grant money from the state's new opioid tax on pharmaceutical companies.

Commissioner Jeff Peterson questioned whether the methamphetamine problem has been overlooked in the emphasis on opioids. Piprude said there is not comparable funding for methamphetamines, but it would be harder to go back to the manufacturer to generate money. There are many components in meth and no licensed company manufactures meth, while the opioid pill is already a completely manufactured product.

A competency restoration task force has been created to regularly review cases of people who have been sent to the state hospital at Anoka, because they were incompetent to stand trial.

The review will determine the person's mental health state and whether the person might now return to jail and stand trial or whether they could be cared for in a community setting until they can stand trial or whether they will remain at Anoka, she said.



Recorder Katie Norby reported passport volumes are up, now averaging 240 issued per year.

People transferring property titles will be hit Jan. 1, 2020, with a Legislature-enacted rise in the minimum $500 state deed tax to a new $3,000 minimum.

The Legislature also enacted a provision which enables an elected official, like a recorder, to request their office be changed to an appointed one at any time during their term or upon their retirement.

Effective Aug. 1, a property owner can record a declaration regarding discharge of a covenant against protected classes.

Norby reported requests for bulk images are rising, not because of more Freedom of Information Act requests from investigative reporters but rather from commercial companies seeking data to help their businesses target customers. Zillow is among these seeking data from many jurisdictions.

She also gets requests for a list of expenditures of technology and compliance fund accounts. She predicts the number of documents filed will remain level this year.


Assessor Mark Peterson reported property market values are rising, with the county's overall estimated market value up about 4.5 percent. The number of real estate sales is about level.

While there have been 5 percent more new home starts, the value of new homes is down about 3.65 percent.

The Legislature returned determination of homestead to be based on deeded interest when an agricultural property is shared by multiple owners, Peterson said.

The Legislature also changed the filing date for disabled veteran homestead exclusion and changed the rules for spousal benefits. The assessor's office and veterans services now can share data.

Vacation rentals now are supposed to be classed as commercial, but there is a gray area over some short term rentals, he said.

The department will switch from paper appraisal records to electronic as soon as other counties work the bugs out of new electronic programs, Peterson said.


County Engineer Darrick Anderson reported the auto parts state sales tax will bring $300,000 new dollars to Cass in 2020. The local option sales tax continues to bring about $1.9 million more annually to the county for road construction projects.

He was able to secure a grant to install a roundabout at the junction ofCounty State Aid Highway44 and County State Aid Highway 1.

He hopes to obtain grants to redesign CSAH 37 in 2022 and CSAH 70 in 2023. County State Aid Highway 70 is the road the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will close and the county must rerouted around the Gull Lake Dam.

The highway department continues to look for ways to partner with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, U.S. Forest Service, townships, cities and neighboring counties, he said.

Anderson said most of the feedback he gets on the county's road is positive.


Land Commissioner Kirk Titus reported strong interest from buyers who paid over $500,000 for multiple parcels totaling 36 acres of tax-forfeited property at a June 23 land auction.

The land department is one of two self-supporting county government departments.

Timber sale is the other primary income source. Cass is the only Minnesota county offering monthly timber auctions, he said. With the closing of the Benson Power Plant, 75 percent of Cass' wood goes to paper mills and 25 percent to oriented strand board plants.

Titus reported he, too, has seen an increase in recreational trails use this year.

The Northern Long Eared Bat population has dropped 90 percent since its population survey began, Titus said, making it likely it will be moved from threatened to endangered at some point. This could affect summer logging.

Environmental Services

Director John Ringle reported an increased workload for issuing zoning permits, plus making site visits and responding to complaints about violations and garbage on properties.

This is the other self-supporting department.

He said he likely will recommend charging beginning this year for site visits and will evaluate existing fees.

There has been an increase in the number of after-the-fact permits, meaning people built something before they got a permit. Some involve the need for a variance or have to be removed.

Aquatic invasive species is another important concern for the department. Ringle said 25 to 27 inspectors are checking boats at landings throughout the summer.

Cass receives $100,000 annually from a water quality fund to reimburse some environmental services department and highway department salary time to manage water quality for wetlands and the county's waterways.

The main goal for solid waste disposal will be to eliminate the 25 percent contamination currently going into the recyclables, Ringle said, and to award new waste disposal contracts.

Assistant Director Jessica Manifold said she will spearhead a rewrite of the county's land use ordinance this year to reorganize and consolidate it, so it will be easier to read.

Central Services

Director Tim Richardson oversees this center for the county's technology and building and grounds operations.

Cass spends $50,000 per year to secure its network and data, but Richardson said he still worries about someone breaking into the system.

The county has moved to more hosted systems where someone else manages the hardware, but the county can still manage the software. There are yearly updates and replacements for the county's many computer programs, he said.

The passage of a new tax law can provide the mechanism for a natural gas pipeline finally to be run from Cass Lake to Walker, he said. This extension has been talked about since 1994, but Richardson said it looks more hopeful this time.

Natural gas might be available in Walker for the 2020-2021 heating season, he said. If that is the case, it will involve converting the county's furnaces from propane and would save the county about 30 percent of its heat cost for county buildings at Walker.

Chief Financial Officer

Sandra Norikane reported there will be an additional cost to the county to have the presidential primary next year, so she will ask for a levy increase to cover that.

There may be grants to help pay to replace the rest of the county's voting equipment not replaced last year, she said. Moving the voting equipment storage to a building at the highway department in Walker saved the county $12,000 per year for rent.

The new telephone system installed this spring for all Walker county buildings has cut the number of calls to the main telephone line into the auditor-treasurer office, she said. Each employee now has a direct line.

All county offices will be on electronic timecards before the county switches to new countywide payroll software.

Human Resources

Kelsey Schwartz, payroll and benefits and human resources official, reported labor negotiations will begin this fall for new contracts with unions representing county employees. Current contracts expire at the end of this year.

Cass County has not had a problem with complying with pay equity rules, Schwartz said. The county has had job descriptions and a pay scale for many years, which ranks employee positions by job responsibility and ranks each employee by years of service for step increases up to 10 years.

As job responsibilities change in various offices, the county regularly contracts with a human resource specialist company to re-evaluate each position where there has been a change in the job description.

She said the county already offers family and medical leave to employees and believes the county benefit is much more economical to operate than the program the Legislature proposed to implement statewide.


Joshua Stevenson said the strong economy has increased customer contacts with the county.

Feedback he receives indicates those customers are getting good service, he said.

The strong economy is also pushing up the cost of living. The average union contract increases he is seeing run 2.85 percent, he said.

Cass County budgeted in 2019 to spend $59,197,058 in 2019, with $22,530,913 of that coming from the property tax levy and the balance coming from state and federal money, fees and other sources.



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