7/3/2018 8:38:00 AM The year in Cass County: Departments review changes, expectations
MONICA LUNDQUIST Cass County Correspondent
BACKUS-What saves money for some county departments can cost another one future revenue loss.
Multiple Cass County department heads reported during the county's annual planning meeting Friday, June 22, switching to electronic work systems improves efficiency and productivity, letting their employees do more work more easily as they find better systems and train to use programs.
"I hope you all realize all this electronics is affecting me," Land Commissioner Kirk Titus commented, showing a wistful grin when his turn came to speak. "We have two main markets for the timber we sell (from county land): oriented strand board and paper." Less paper use affects paper mills loggers sell to, he said.
The long winter brought a good, long logging harvest season, so mills are full right now, Titus reported. A Benson plant using chipped tree tops and branches is expected to close in the next year, which will affect sales to the biomass market, he added.
A northern long-eared bat study done in Cass in the last year showed colonies are down 50 percent. If this leads to moving the bats from the threatened to endangered designation, it could put major limits on summer logging, Titus noted.
Cass's forest inventory shows a backlog of mature wood to be harvested, he said.
Over-the-counter land sales have increased. There has been high public interest ahead of the county's land auction this year, Titus said. Whether higher interest rates or looser lending will affect future county land sales remains to be seen, he said. The state shortened the redemption period for forfeiting properties, enabling the county to sell those sooner than used to be allowed, he said.
Spending down, levy up
Administrator Joshua Stevenson reported Cass County's 2018 budget calls for spending $56,044,718, or 4.11 percent less than 2017. The levy increased 2.49 percent to pay for $22,307,860 of that. Local option transportation sales tax continues to bring in more money than expected for roads.
While the 2018 budget had no contingency fund, the county has not used any fund balance so far this year to pay for anything, Stevenson said.
The county built a new highway garage at Remer in 2017. By combining that project with Remer's new ambulance garage, the city and county saved $500,000, Stevenson reported.
A new combined Longville ambulance garage and county highway garage will be built in that city this summer.
Stevenson said the average age of Cass County employees is 58, so the county expects continuing turnover as people retire. New young employees come better prepared to use technology, but they seem to come expecting more from their employers, he said.
For this reason, the county made the human resource position full-time this year rather than a shared position with other duties.
County customers praise the increased information technology gives them, he said. People must think the county is doing something right, because there are no contests in any Cass County election this year, Stevenson said.
Uncertain effects of Enbridge case
Chief Financial Officer Sandra Norikane reported she is still in the process of reorganizing to improve efficiency since taking over the auditor-treasurer department. She also has staff turnover due to retirements.
She said she is trying to plan a balanced approach to the potential cost Cass could face if the state loses its appeal of a court decision in favor of Enbridge lowering Enbridge's land value in Minnesota. She expects Cass and other counties and cities, towns and schools in them to be ordered to repay Enbridge for the excess taxes these local governments collected.
The counties asked for state legislation to enable the state to pay at least a portion, because the state, not counties, set Enbridge's land value upon which the excess taxing was based. This case covers taxing years 2012, 2013 and 2014.
The state has not lowered its value for tax calculation since this case went to court, so Enbridge could appeal all the years after 2014 in the future. For some counties and cities, Enbridge's property tax payment represents 50 percent or more of their total levy.
Norikane said she is trying to create a balance by setting some money aside to prepare for Cass to pay its court-ordered share back, but not to set aside so much that Cass would not qualify for state money if the Legislature approves paying part or all.
Minnesota counties argued the state should be required to repay excess taxes to utilities, because the state sets the property value on those. Counties set property value for general commercial and industrial or residential properties and refund overages on those. It would take new state legislation to make the state responsible for repayment to utility companies.
Assessor Mark Peterson said the final Enbridge court appeal decision could impact other land in Cass County. All utility companies are watching the Enbridge case closely. Some other utilities already are preparing cases to appeal their property valuations as well, he said.
He predicted the odds are slim the initial court finding in Enbridge's favor will be overturned on appeal.
Cass County's total 2018 assessed value is up 3 percent over the 2017 value, not counting state-assessed properties, Peterson reported.
The number of arms-length property sales in Cass rose 15 percent and property values also rose the first quarter this year, Peterson said. New construction value is up 14 percent or $62,544,600. New home starts, however, are down significantly.
Peterson finds new employees replacing those retiring are more reluctant to knock on doors and talk to property owners than prior employees.
Central Services Director Tim Richardson reported his technology staff not only is helping other departments transition to electronic programming, but also working on transitioning some data storage to the cloud.
He said people would be amazed to see the volume of people trying to break into the county's network system as his staff daily works to keep on top of security measures. They also are working to develop a plan on how long and which data should be retained.
There are increasing costs to make the county's systems compliant with state and federal security rules.
Richardson's department oversees county buildings. He said Cass is close to making enough significant improvements it soon will be in maintenance mode.
It appears propane to run Cass' heating systems will be up this fall, he said.
Deputy Environmental Services Director Jessica Manifold said more people are coming to the office for assistance, so she initiated a policy to try to have two permit intake employees and one resource specialist available to assist people at all times. She said the number of requests for variances has risen. Public nuisances continue to be a problem.
While other counties in the state seem to have trouble finding people interested in serving on their soil and water conservation district board, Cass has candidates running for office in all its districts. The relationship between ESD and SWCD is good here, she said.
The Cass County Board delegated a number of projects to SWCD, such as watershed planning and aquatic invasive species prevention. This likely makes work on that board more worthwhile and interesting than in other counties, Stevenson said.
Mental health, drug use top issues
Health, Human and Veterans Services Director Michelle Piprude reported suicide, opioid use and mental health issues are significant focuses for her department.
The leading cause of death for people age 15 to 35 now is suicide, she said. Opioid use is up 46 percent. All 87 counties lobbied the Minnesota Legislature to get the $28 million bonding passed for mental health crisis centers, she said. Adult mental health commitment and adult protection cases continue to rise, Piprude said.
Counties pay a major portion of the amount spent for children's mental health services, with that share rising recently when the federal government reclassified one program, making it no longer eligible for federal reimbursement, she added. Federal legislation and oversight has increased the need for documents and training, Piprude said.
Sgt. Brad Rittgers reported drugs are involved in well over half the sheriff's department arrests. He, too, has seen the increased opioid use. He said variations in how strictly or leniently judges sentence people affects people's perception about whether there will be consequences for selling drugs. Sentences vary widely, he added. The number of calls to the sheriff's office are running about the same as last year, but the number of serious crimes is up, Rittgers said.
Probation Director Jim Schneider, who called the opioid crisis "prominent," said he is hopeful some of the diversion and family counseling services the county offers are helping some, because the number of juvenile offenses has decreased slightly.
There are studies underway to determine whether preventive efforts do help. He said he expects to see some of those reports in the next couple years.
Today's focus on mental health issues means the state Peace Officers Standards and Training Board requires more training today for all officers on crisis intervention and diversity. Officers see more people who have mental health issues today, especially juveniles, Rittgers said. The sheriff also is working with cellphone providers to give priority access for emergency services, he said.
County Attorney Ben Lindstrom is focused on transitioning to an all-electronic file system, which he hopes will be completed this year. Efficiency is important for processing the high volume of cases, he said. He tries to get attorneys to reach an agreement without jury trials. It means 100 hours of work per attorney for each jury trial, so each trial is very expensive, Lindstrom said.
One major homicide was decided by a guilty plea without a trial this year. Another homicide is pending, Lindstrom reported.
In court administration, Layla Litter reported half of the staff (five of 10 employees) will retire this year.
Cass County Court Administrator Bob Sommerville has been named regional director of the Minnesota Ninth Judicial District, so will move to the Bemidji office and a new local administrator will be named, she said. Some district court hearings are now being held at Leech Lake Tribal Justice Center in Cass Lake under a pilot program, Litter said.
Costs for county-paid attorneys continue to go up and have not been predictable, she said. Court administration is trying to track those costs more closely and to find options to make them more predictable.
County Recorder Katie Norby said the number of documents recorded and passports issued were up in 2017, but are declining this year.
Recording electronically continues to increase and is now at about 40 percent of all documents, she said. New laws will allow people to get their documents notarized electronically, she said.
Sealed bids to change
Assistant County Engineer Joshua Howe reported a new state law taking effect Aug. 21 increases the amount a project can cost required before counties and other local governments have to advertise for bids. Previously, any project costing $100,000 or more would require advertising for sealed bids. Now, the minimum before bidding is required will rise to $175,000.
The local option transportation sales tax delivered $625,000 in road improvements for Cass County in 2017, Howe said.
Cass will continue to pursue joint projects with the Leech Lake Band, Minnesota Department of Transportation, U.S. Forest Service, townships, cities and neighboring counties, he added.
Project development is underway for construction projects on County Highway 37 in 2022 and County Highway 70 (Gull Dam Road) in 2023. Work now includes archeological and environmental studies.
Cass County 2019 budget timetable
July 11-Packets go to department heads to fill out for their planned 2019 budgets.
Aug. 3-Department head proposed budgets due for citizen budget committee to review.
Aug. 17 and 24-Budget committee meets to prepare preliminary combined budget.
Aug. 31-Additional budget committee review, if needed.
Sept. 7-County board adopts preliminary budget and levy.
Oct. 12 and 26-Budget committee revises proposed budget.
November-Truth in Taxation notices mailed to property taxpayers.
Dec. 6-Public hearing on proposed budget and levy.
Dec. 18-County board adopts final budget and levy..
Second publication rights after Brainerd Dispatch.