By Emily Bialkowski
Staff from the Houston County Public Health Department were on hand during the Oct. 22 County Board meeting to address a discrepancy in the department’s budget.
A flag was raised on Oct. 8 when Finance Director Carol Lapham reported that 132 percent of Public Health’s budget has been spent even though only 75 percent of the year is complete.
During this most recent meeting, Loretta Lillegraven, Public Health financial supervisor, said much of the disparity has to do with how different programs reimburse the county. For example, Medicare has a three- to four-month lag. The Women, Infants and Children program currently owes $39,000.
Another factor playing into the financial report is that $78,800 in grants have yet to be received by the department. They were expected to come in September, but they have not, and there’s no indication when they will.
Public Health Director Deb Rock said the situation is further complicated by the fact that the department has 20 different pay sources.
“We constantly have this contradiction,” she said, adding that her department is doing its part and submitting claims in a timely manner.
Commissioner Steve Schuldt asked how much the department has hanging out there.
Lillegraven said about $144,000.
Even more, on the Medicare side alone, the county has had 64 “episodes” this year compared to last year where they had 50 episodes total. It’s difficult for the county to predict expenses when, from year to year, there might be many more cases or there might be fewer.
“It’s a budgeting nightmare,” Schuldt said.
Commissioner Dana Kjome added, “It’s really tough for us for budgeting to do a tax levy.”
Lillegraven said she understood their predicament.
“Even when our kids were little, it cost $25 to go to the clinic and you paid it. Now you can’t get out of the clinic for less than $500.
“Years ago (Public Health) brought in revenue to the general fund; that’s how things have shifted in 10 years’ time, and we’re not doing anything different.”
The conversation was filled with very specific instances of how the budget is affected by state and federal regulations.
For example, Medicare makes all providers reapply at a cost $550 every two years. They also require surveying of patients, which is a $90 per month expense.
Commissioner Justin Zmyewski asked if the county was on par with where it should be this time of the year.
“As best as we can determine,” Lillegraven said. “If we get in what we’re owed, we’re good.”
The conversation was informative in nature, so no action was needed.
Human Resources Director Tess Arrick-Kruger brought forth three items for consideration.
The first was a recommendation to hire Chris Hartley as a probationary maintenance specialist for the Highway Department. Hartley comes to the county qualified to operate a variety of equipment from his years in the construction industry. The recommendation received unanimous approval.
A contract to hire Hoskins Electric to the replace the courthouse’s fire alarm panel and associated devices was approved at a cost of $9,280.
“We are in dire need of having this work done,” Arrick-Kruger said.
The fire alarm system recently malfunctioned and generated a false alarm.
Arrick-Kruger said the exercise turned out to be a good drill and helped identify weaknesses in the county’s response.
The project was approved.
On a final note, Arrick-Kruger informed the board that the four drain tunnels between the courthouse and Justice Center have been cleaned.
The tunnels are large enough that an adult can actually walk in them in a crouched position and are required to help absorb rainwater.
“We are required to clear all the residue in those and have them looked at,” Arrick-Kruger said.
Schuldt further explained that the tunnels were required because of all the rooftops and blacktop on the courthouse campus. “We have a lot of runoff. Those are like our green space where water absorption takes place,” he said.
Frac sand update
“Frac sand issue updates” is a reoccurring agenda item for the Houston County Board under unfinished business. The topic has remained quiet for many weeks, but this week Zmyewski presented information from a conversation he had with Minnesota Environmental Quality Board Director Will Seuffert.
“I met with the director last week and had an interesting conversation about where they’re at and how they will help the counties. He took a tour of southeastern Minnesota, and one point I was trying to get across is our region is very different and we don’t want blanketed regulation.
“I asked about the possibility of areas being banned and he said that is not off the table. He said their technical advisory committee would offer help with guidelines and can directly work with the county as far as a more restrictive environment.
“It was a good conversation, and he actually got to see firsthand what everyone’s been talking about. He’s obviously there to support us.”
Some of the commissioners will also be attending regional meetings set up by the EQB to further gather information on how the organization might help Houston County as it grapples with regulating industrial mining.
For a third time, the board went into closed session to continue to discuss allegations of misconduct against a county employee. The board deliberated for more than two hours.
Upon returning into open session, the board determined that the matter should be sent back to the employee’s supervisor, who will work with Human Resources on the issue. No further information was provided.
Road projects continue to roll into the Highway Department and County Engineer Brian Pogodzinski had several needing approval.
• A $1.3 million project was awarded to Griffin Construction for County 12. This is a FEMA-supported effort.
• Guardrails for a portion of County 19 were approved. The work will go to Mattison Construction for approximately $16,500. This is also FEMA-supported.
• Guardrails for a portion of County 32 were also approved at $365.
• County 5 will also be the recipient of new guardrails at a cost of $25,370.
• And finally, a shop the county shares with La Crescent Township will be the recipient of some repair work at a cost of $5,500.