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Crow Wing County Board: Board suspends VSO over missed deadlines

The Crow Wing County veterans service officer will serve a one-day suspension following a unanimous decision by the county board Tuesday. Bob Nelson, VSO, also received a written reprimand and will be subject to a performance improvement plan aft...

Chelsey Perkins/Brainerd DispatchBob Nelson, Crow Wing County veterans service officer, responds to county board questions about his performance Tuesday. Nelson failed to submit grant paperwork on time and did not submit a 2017 budget by the deadline.
Chelsey Perkins/Brainerd Dispatch Bob Nelson, Crow Wing County veterans service officer, responds to county board questions about his performance Tuesday. Nelson failed to submit grant paperwork on time and did not submit a 2017 budget by the deadline.

The Crow Wing County veterans service officer will serve a one-day suspension following a unanimous decision by the county board Tuesday.

Bob Nelson, VSO, also received a written reprimand and will be subject to a performance improvement plan after admitting to missing a deadline for grant paperwork and failing to submit his 2017 department budget on time.

Commissioner Paul Thiede confronted Nelson with a number of reminder emails sent to the VSO on both deadlines, emails to which Nelson failed to respond.

"It was a very busy time," Nelson said.

One deadline Nelson failed to meet was with the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs. Nelson was required to submit documentation for the use of funds from a $15,000 grant, paperwork needed before the county is eligible for the same grant next year. On Sept. 14, the state notified Nelson if the paperwork was not completed immediately, he would be required to return the full amount of the grant. The paperwork was officially submitted Monday.

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"What assurances can you give me that this failure will not impair Crow Wing County's eligibility for the 2017 VSO grant?" Thiede asked Nelson.

Nelson said with the submittal of the paperwork, they were now eligible for the 2017 grant-although of the $15,000 awarded for 2016, nearly two-thirds was turned back unused. It can be used to advertise the office, which Nelson used to purchase billboard space in previous years. The funds can be used to inform veterans about the office. Nelson said he considered purchasing a projector for presentations to veterans groups. Nelson said he'd set aside some of those funds to train a new assistant VSO following a retirement in his office, although the training program occurred before the hiring was finalized. Other expenditures were not accepted because they were outside the allowable grant time period. The grant dollars can be used for certain expenses, such as advertising and other office support expenditures, but not for furnishings or use of the existing office van.

"I am led to believe that there is a significant amount of dollars left on the table from state funds that the veterans of Crow Wing County are not receiving," Thiede said.

Deborah Erickson, administrative services director, told the board the county would potentially leave more money on the table because the 2017 grant could not go into effect until the 2016 grant was finalized, including the expected refund to the state.

Another deadline Thiede discussed with Nelson was an internal requirement to submit his department's proposed budget for 2017. Again, Thiede listed several emails Nelson received reminding him of the deadline and offering help with the computer system used for budgeting. Nelson acknowledged he did not seek assistance or inform anyone he was experiencing difficulty meeting the deadline. He also did not submit a report to the county board in July after providing reports in January and April, per his requirement to report quarterly.

"I'm very, very sorry that I have not done those things," Nelson said. "The focus has really been providing service to veterans and not reporting to the board is a bad oversight from my side."

This is not the first time Nelson appeared before the board over concerns with his work as VSO. In February 2015, Nelson was called before the board for disciplinary consideration at the behest of his supervisors in community services. They recommended the board not reappoint Nelson to his post due to what they described as poor performance in meeting organizational goals. The county veterans service officer is one of three positions within county government designated for reappointment every four years.

In an unusual move, Nelson requested that disciplinary discussion be opened to the public, a session typically closed to the public per state law. The ensuing board discussions on Nelson's performance drew widespread support for Nelson from the local veteran community. Those veterans emphasized the importance of Nelson's direct work with veterans as opposed to administrative reporting requirements.

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The board voted in favor of reappointing Nelson at the time and also separated his office from community services, placing him directly under the purview of the county board. Commissioner Paul Koering told Nelson Tuesday he was disappointed in him.

"Back when we were deciding whether or not to reappoint you, I supported you," Koering said. "I know that you help veterans. But if you need help, come and ask for it. ... We're here to help you. We're not the enemy."

Thiede made a motion to add a closed session to the end of the board agenda to consider discipline of Nelson, which was approved. Before concluding his appearance in open session, Nelson offered the board recent highlights from his office. His office collected $30,800 toward the purchase of a new van to transport veterans to medical appointments, and the National Joint Powers Alliance is set to offer another $15,000 for the van purchase.

For more than a half-hour, the board met with Nelson and Tamra Laska, human resource director, in closed session. Nelson left the meeting to allow the board to discuss possible repercussions for his failure to meet deadlines.

While awaiting the board's decision, Nelson said he "deserved" punishment. But, he added, from May to August his office operated without an assistant VSO, and the summer months are the busiest. That meant he and one other staff person worked in the office. As Nelson has previously noted, his position differs from many other department heads because of his direct customer service duties.

According to figures presented last year, Crow Wing County ranks second among the 12 Minnesota counties with the largest veteran populations when it comes to the number of veterans receiving treatment from the Department of Veteran Affairs.

He said his office could benefit from an additional staff member, although it is too late to request one in his budget for 2017. Nelson submitted a budget proposal that was the same as his 2016 budget.

The board reopened the meeting to the public once its deliberations were concluded. Thiede made the motion to discipline Nelson, including the one-day suspension, written reprimand and performance improvement plan. Koering seconded the motion and the board passed it 5-0.

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County Administrator Tim Houle said Nelson would serve the suspension this week.

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CORRECTION: The story originally stated VSO Bob Nelson is under the purview of the county administrator. He actually reports directly to the county board.

The Dispatch regrets the error.

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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