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CROW WING COUNTY BOARD: Tier 3 program moves to contractor

The administration of a social services program has officially been transferred from Crow Wing County community services to the Rural Minnesota Concentrated Employment Program (CEP).

The administration of a social services program has officially been transferred from Crow Wing County community services to the Rural Minnesota Concentrated Employment Program (CEP).

The Crow Wing County Board Tuesday approved an addendum to the contract with CEP to administer the county's Minnesota Family Investment Program's (MFIP) Tier 3 program. The employment program already administers MFIP Tiers 1 and 2.

MFIP is a program to help families with children meet basic needs while assisting parents with financial stability through work. The Tier 3 program identifies MFIP recipients who have the most difficulties becoming employed. Barriers to gainful employment can include mental health issues, physical health issues, chemical dependency or lack of education. Mothers younger than 18 years of age qualifying for MFIP are automatically enlisted in the Tier 3 program.

Until this move, social workers in community services administered the program. County officials made the decision earlier this year to reassign these social workers to other areas within community services, a decision that will bring $183,000 additional state and federal dollars to the county, Tim Houle, county administrator, reported in January.

The decision was questioned in a Jan. 27 open forum presentation by Kaylo Brooks, a county social worker who worked with the Tier 3 population. Brooks shared concerns that family preservation and home visits would not be a focus should CEP take over the program's administration. Craig Nathan, director of field operations at CEP, responded to those concerns, noting the organization intends to hire more social workers to address those needs along with providing employment assistance.

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The contract addendum established goals the county expects CEP to meet while administering the program. These include expected graduation rates, work participation rates, average wages at job placements and the percent of MFIP cases off cash assistance and working thirty or more hours per week after three years.

Commissioner Paul Thiede asked for an explanation of how $9.50 became the wage goal of program participants.

"If you set that floor above the minimum wage, are you not potentially restricting the possibility of employing them in some areas?" Thiede asked.

Nathan said the goal is "highly attainable."

"The employment program contains many different portions of which includes education," Nathan said. "Higher education means higher skills. Higher skills means a higher wage. We strive for as high of a wage as we can get."

"I'm not arguing the point at all that minimum wage is necessarily a particularly livable wage," Thiede responded. "When we ran the MFIP program, did we have a minimum employment placement salary?"

Kara Terry, community services director, said while the county helped clients obtain employment, they focused more on overcoming social barriers and family problems.

"Our focus was a bit different than what CEP is focused on here," Terry said.

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Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom asked for a summary of what changes clients of the Tier 3 program could expect.

Sue Hilgart, team leader with CEP, listed several things she said would be added services to clients, including access to funding for transportation barriers, opportunities to work with community organizations on family preservation, workshops on job search strategies and interview skills and additional job skills training.

Hilgart said attaining the $9.50 per hour goal would become more possible by utilizing these resources.

"That connects, then, to self-sufficiency ... and being off of public assistance for the long term rather than being in and out," Hilgart said.

Commissioner Rosemary Franzen said up until about 10 years ago, CEP administered the Tier 3 program in addition to the Tier 1 and 2 programs. She said it was unclear why the program was moved back under county administration in the first place.

"I know Minnesota CEP also does the service Tier 1, 2 and 3 for 19 of our surrounding counties," Franzen said. "I think they're very well qualified. I personally think that's where it belongs."

Thiede said he was still "having a hard time getting (his) arms wrapped around" the wage requirement.

Hilgart said this goal was to achieve a wage average of $9.50, not that $9.50 was the required minimum.

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"The job market right now is pretty robust," she said. "We do have people who complete college training while they're in the program ... and they exit in a $20 or more an hour job."

Thiede said he understood the goal with Hilgart's explanation.

The contract addendum was approved by the county board unanimously.

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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