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Crow Wing County Board: Task force to consider moving probation services in-house

Whether Crow Wing County should remain in partnership with Aitkin and Morrison counties or go it alone in administering probation and supervised release for area offenders is the question a newly approved task force will seek to answer.

Whether Crow Wing County should remain in partnership with Aitkin and Morrison counties or go it alone in administering probation and supervised release for area offenders is the question a newly approved task force will seek to answer.

County Administrator Tim Houle presented the proposed task force to the Crow Wing County Board Tuesday, telling commissioners the county's past positive experiences with restructuring county government warrant an examination of how best to deliver probation services. Houle offered the examples of the restructuring of the land and community services departments, which involved the integration of several separate departments.

The restructuring of these departments saved county taxpayers $3.5 million, Houle said, and the task force will look for cost savings and improvement in service possibilities in community corrections.

"We have a lot of crossover of people who navigate through our community services system, probation system, sometimes through the county jail system, the public safety system, through the county attorney's office," Houle said.

Evaluating the pros and cons of different methods of delivering probation services, Houle said, has the potential to continue the county's successes at finding efficiencies. Community services and Central Minnesota Community Corrections (CMCC), the joint powers organization currently providing probation services in the three counties, already work together on programs such as DWI court, drug court and child protection screening.

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Houle made clear his proposal did not arise from a dissatisfaction with CMCC staff.

"I am simply suggesting that our own experience proves that organizational structure matters, both to service outcomes, efficiency and operating costs," Houle wrote in a memo to the county board. "This is not a case of our wanting bad people to go away. On the contrary, this is a case of good people serving residents of Crow Wing County that we would like to have come closer to us."

According to CMCC's website, Crow Wing and Morrison counties first partnered on community corrections in 1974 as one of the first three systems of its kind in the state. Aitkin County joined the group in 1992, forming CMCC as it exists today. The three counties are some of 32 counties in the state who administer a correctional system governed by the Community Corrections Act, one of three community supervision systems of offenders operating in the state, according to the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC).

Legislation passed in 1973 allows counties or groups of contiguous counties with populations exceeding 30,000 to provide their own supervision services, funded by state subsidy and county property tax dollars. In the remaining counties in the state, probation and supervised release is delivered either fully by the DOC or in cooperation with county probation officers.

Commissioners Paul Thiede and Rachel Reabe Nystrom, both of whom serve on the joint powers board along with county commissioners from the other two counties, sought to assure this examination was not a "foregone conclusion" of withdrawal from CMCC.

Thiede said corrections staff have gone through "dramatic transitions" over the last few years, including what he characterized as a beneficial change in leadership structure from one director to shared responsibilities among three.

"I certainly don't want in any way, shape or form for this to dull that," Thiede said. "Just because we've done it that way and we're doing it this way, doesn't mean there isn't reason for us to look at other options."

Thiede recommended as an unofficial addendum to Houle's proposal the task force incorporate the suggestions of Tom Rosenthal, Crow Wing County director of CMCC. In an email to the county board, Rosenthal recommended the inclusion of a judge, a law enforcement officer, a prosecuting attorney, a school administrator, a community corrections staff member, a social services staff member and a lay citizen.

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"I think there's nothing wrong with getting the benefit of the wisdom as part of this, and would in fact be very helpful," Thiede said. "I think that's going to go a ways to soften the concern that somehow people outside of corrections are going to impose something."

Nystrom also praised the direction CMCC took in leadership, noting it was eight years ago in "total turmoil" and no longer is.

"As well as it's going, I think we still need to review on can we do it better, can we do it faster, can we do it for less money," Nystrom said. "We're always looking for these things. We should probably go through a lot of our departments and talk about evolution. What can we do to make it better for our clients, our customers, our residents? This is not a review because there is a problem with the management, because there is not."

Chairman Paul Koering clarified the county board would make the ultimate decision on whether to change delivery of probation services, not the task force. Last September, Koering expressed concern about a 16.5 percent increase in the appropriation request from CMCC during a budget discussion and relayed his concerns again Tuesday.

"There are other commissioners from other counties, Morrison and Aitkin counties, that are making decisions for the citizens of Crow Wing County that we have no control over," Koering said. "I am deeply, deeply troubled by that. That is totally unacceptable when other county commissioners can impose a 16 percent increase and there's nothing that this county board can do to stop it."

Houle said although the county has the authority to administer services such as probation, the library or the airport on its own, officials do seek partnerships in many cases.

"In any relationship that you have in your life there are pros and there are cons," Houle said. "I understand the frustration you're expressing, Commissioner Koering, because you do give away the authority to act independently when you enter a joint powers agreement. You'd like to think there are pros to that arrangement as well."

Thiede said he felt obligated as a member of the advisory and executive committees of CMCC to point out they could have voted down the increase.

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"There is always a balance of doing that and harming a relationship overall as well," Thiede said. "I don't want to leave this conversation again on the basis that we're going to stick it to you because you raised your rates by 16 percent. I think that's a short-sighted and limited vision of what occurred there and I don't want to poison the well, if you will."

The county board approved Houle's request in a 4-1 vote with Koering opposed. Koering said after the meeting his was a "protest vote," representing his desire for the county board to make the decision without establishing a task force.

By phone later Tuesday, Rosenthal said the question of the increased appropriation was not central to the overall discussion of moving forward with the task force. He did note, however, the increase was the first one requested since the new leadership structure was established seven years ago. At the time, the dollars that would have covered the salary and benefits of the previous director were turned back to the involved counties - amounting to about the same figure as this year's increase.

This year's request was to cover the increasing costs of health care coverage and salaries for the organization's remaining staff of probation officers, after six to seven years of reductions by attrition.

Rosenthal, who will be a member of the task force, said he does not favor any particular probation delivery structure except for one with public safety in mind.

"To me whatever structure is decided, as long as we are adequately staffed, we will be OK," Rosenthal said. "But I'm not OK with a change that jeopardizes public safety and hurts our ability to work with offenders that we are making progress in many areas that improve the lives of the citizens of the community."

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

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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