County begins budget process

by April Scheinoha

    Before long, the Pennington County Board will have to set the preliminary 2018 budget. At its meeting Tuesday, Aug. 8, commissioners heard about requests for the human services budget, and the Housing and Redevelopment Authority levy.
    The Pennington County Human Services Department is seeking a 4.75 percent increase in its budget, which was $2,148,492 in 2017. The increase amounts to about $100,000.
    The bulk of the increase stems from salary increases, a possible 10 percent increase in insurance rates, and some program cost increases, according to Scott Sommers with the Human Services Department.
    The department budget also includes the possibility of hiring additional staff members at an estimated total cost of $165,297. As it stands now, there is no funding in the budget for that purpose. Sommers added that the amount could change if commissioners choose to hire additional staff at different points of the year.
    Commissioners haven’t yet voted on whether to create additional positions in the department. Human Services Director Ken Yutrzenka said there has been talk about adding two additional staff members and possibly changing a worker position to a lead worker position.
    The County Board took no action on the human services preliminary budget or the possibility of additional positions in the department.
    Commissioners approved supporting a request from the Northwest Minnesota Multi-County Housing and Redevelopment Authority to seek an extension of the HRA levy legislation. The HRA is seeking a five-year extension of the current HRA levy legislation. Currently, it sunsets with the 2018 levy payable in 2019.
    Multi-County HRA is requesting up to 25 percent of the allowable levy in the respective six counties it serves. Pennington County Auditor/Treasurer Ken Olson said that amount was $63,838 last year in Pennington County.
    The HRA provides Section 8 rental assistance funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development with payments made directly to private/public landlords; rehabilitation of rental, commercial and owner-occupied properties; down payment assistance; and development of market-rate housing.
    Commissioners approved an interim policy regarding the personal use of Highway Department vehicles and tools.  Under the interim policy, Highway Department personnel will have to file a request with County Engineer Mike Flaagan to use department vehicles and/or tools for personal use. He will then forward the request to the Highway Committee.
    The interim policy was formulated after Gerry Mattison, a former Highway Department employee who was fired from his position, contacted another news outlet with pictures of a county water tanker filling Flaagan’s pool with water. In an interview with the news outlet, Flaagan admitted that he used the tanker and paid  $170. Mattison claimed it has happened more than once.
    The Highway Department met after the incident came to light. Commissioner Don Jensen, who serves on the Highway Committee, said Flaagan did nothing wrong. He added that the previous policy was for all personal use requests to go through Flaagan.
    Jensen noted the committee discussed whether a countywide policy should be drafted. However, there were concerns about how sheriff’s deputies would be affected since they drive squad cars home to respond to emergencies in a timely fashion.
    Resident Dean Philipp appeared before the County Board to state his concerns about the incident involving Flaagan. He also raised other concerns.
    Philipp appeared after commissioners had already approved the interim policy for the Highway Department. He noted that commissioners need to stop allowing personal use of county equipment. He referred to the possibility of accidents. However, Philipp noted that he wasn’t concerned about sheriff’s deputies driving squad cars home.
    Philipp also voiced his thoughts about his neighbor’s water draining onto Philipp’s property in Section 10 of Smiley Township. He and Jensen disagreed whether the water was following a natural water course. Jensen encouraged Philipp to file a petition with the county. The petition can then be brought to the Red Lake Watershed District.
    Philipp also voiced his displeasure about the valuation of his mother’s rental property at 314 Fourth St. E. in Thief River Falls. He said it was valued at $17,000 for 2017. He renovated the property with used material, and it is now valued at $47,500 for 2018. Philipp further noted that the rental house was vacant from January to June.
    Chairperson Cody Hempel encouraged Philipp to appeal the valuation in June.
    Commissioners approved filling a 0.75 FTE position of county 4-H Program director with the University of Minnesota.
    Van Swanson is expected to retire as the 4-H Program director for both Pennington and Marshall counties at the end of the year. Marshall County is expected to seek a 1.0 FTE position on its own.
    It was expected that the U of M would have the chosen applicant in place in mid-January.
    County Board rescheduled the bid opening for the replacement of a bridge on Pennington County State Aid Highway 17, which is commonly referred to as the airport road. The bid opening was originally scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 22, but it has since been rescheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 30 at 10 a.m.
    The wooden bridge is located one mile north of CSAH 3. It will be replaced with a box culvert. The project is estimated to cost $120,000.
    Commissioners accepted a $7,500 veterans service grant. The grant will be used to pay for veterans’ transportation to the VA Hospital.
    The County Board accepted an $8,681 grant for septic system upgrades. This grant will be used to assist low-income property owners who need to upgrade their failing septic systems.
    The next County Board meeting is scheduled Tuesday, Aug. 22 at 5 p.m. at the Pennington County Courthouse.