By Emily Bialkowski
The Houston County Board will ask the state for a cash advance to fix County Highway 9 in 2014.
The decision was made Feb. 4 after County Engineer Brian Pogodzinski brought the board up to speed on the financials. Spurring the request is the fact that County 9 is in rough shape, according to Pogodzinski, and the road wasn’t due for reconstruction until 2016.
Analysis of the county’s five-year road reconstruction plan, along with Highway Department funding streams, all pointed to an advance on state funds, which will leave the Highway Department a bit dry in 2015 but back in good shape by 2016.
Each year the state gives the county money for road projects, and the formula used to determine the amount helps counties project and plan for future needs.
The county is projecting $2.46 million in state aid in 2014, $2.54 million in 2015 and $2.6 million in 2016.
A list of road repair projects accompanies each year as well, and Pogodzinski said he felt there was little wiggle room in terms of putting off other projects. He instead suggested requesting $897,000 be advanced from the 2015 allocation to move the County 9 project into 2014.
Then, in 2015, the county will only receive $1.64 million. Unreserved fund balance will be used to offset the discrepancy in 2015 until 2016, when another state payment of $2.6 million comes in and replenishes the unreserved fund.
“I think we are sitting in good shape. We have some options, and we have some flexibility,” Pogodzinski said.
But Commissioner Justin Zmyewski expressed concern.
“It kind of sounds like we’re robbing from Peter to pay Paul. I would hate to go into the unreserved fund. Is there a way to re-prioritize or bump a project?” he asked.
“It’s not a permanent reduction in funds,” Pogodzinski said, adding that he would not advocate for any permanent reduction in fund balance.
Commissioner Steve Schuldt supported the tactic.
“It’s money we have coming anyway. We’re just pushing it into an earlier fiscal year,” he said.
The only caveat to the solution is the cash advance will not support complete reconstruction of the road, only repavement. Pogodzinski said, in the most ideal of circumstances, the road would be modified to accommodate 4-foot shoulders, for example, where there are only 2-foot shoulders today. That said, repavement will extend the life of the road 15 to 20 years.
“I think it makes sense to use the cash advance from the state aid money because we will get that reimbursed anyway,” Commissioner Teresa Walter said.
The board voted unanimously in favor of requesting an $897,000 advance from the state. Such requests are typically granted on a first-come, first-served basis.
Additional social workers needed
Human Resources Director Tess Arrick-Kruger and Human Services Director Linda Bahr requested permission to hire two full-time social workers. One of the positions is being spurred by a retirement. The second is to combat increasing case loads.
Interestingly, the addition of another social worker will actually improve the overall department’s budget because the federal government reimburses the county at a rate that includes administrative overhead, gas, stamps and other incidental costs associated with providing social work services.
Despite the financial gain, the department took time to evaluate case loads.
The evaluation indicated that in children’s mental health, where the state recommends a case load of 15 per worker, Houston County workers are cumulatively handling an additional 25 cases.
“That’s more than enough to keep a child mental health worker busy,” Bahr said. “Right now I would say the social workers are a little bit run ragged.”
“We actually have human beings in need of service but, looking at case load, I don’t see how we can meet that demand,” Arrick-Kruger added.
The County Board approved the request to hire two social workers.
New credit system
The board approved a new, three-year credit and debit card contract with Point & Pay LLC brought forth by County Treasurer Donna Trehus.
The contract moves the county to a convenience fee pricing model, in which customers make payment for the sum of the purchase, plus an additional fee (convenience fee) to cover the cost of the transaction.
For example, residents wanting a copy of their marriage certificate – who wish to pay with a credit or debit card – will pay for the cost of the document plus a small fee for using a credit card.
Those who pay with cash or a check will not be charged the convenience fee. Departments adopting this option include the treasurer’s office, the recorder’s office, the auditor’s and licensing office, and Human Services.
Trehus said she and other departments have not been wholly satisfied with the current vendor and that other counties in Minnesota have reported excellent service with Point & Pay LLC.
Additionally, there is no cost to the county for agreeing to the system other than a three-year commitment, which includes free training.
“I think it’s the way of the future,” Walter said in support of the proposal, adding that many places no longer accept checks at all.
The item gained unanimous approval, and Trehus said residents will be informed of the convenience fee before a credit or debit transaction is processed.