On Nov. 13, Houston County commissioners voted to make the Victim Services Officer (VSO) a county employee.

VSO coordinator Michelle Hermann will become a County Attorney's Department member on Jan. 2, 2013. With close to 20 years of experience at the post, Hermann's probationary period was waived.

County Attorney Jamie Hammell reported that an administrative order from the court has been issued, which will require that 100% of the fine money allocated for victims services will go to the Houston County VSO program.

Previously, those funds were split between Bluff Country Family Resources and Houston County VSO, she explained.

Hwy. Dept. hiring tabled

In other personnel news, the board voted to grant regular status to Home Health aide Erin Bauer.

Commissioners also approved a request from Personnel Director Tess Kruger to search for a seasonal Highway Department worker to help mainly with snowplowing. County Engineer Brian Pogodzinski told the board that two 67-day temporary plow drivers who were hired last winter are no longer available.

Pogodzinski was told that with budgets tightening, he may need to choose between equipment purchases and staffing.

He reminded the board that 2012 equipment replacements were put on hold during last year's budgeting.

"We can't extend equipment out too far," Pogodzinski said, noting that one of the county's dump trucks is 22 years old.

Snowplow staff is also stretched to the point where there is practically no backup available, he added.

"We can see the toll that it's taken on our maintenance staff in the last couple years. We're down multiple maintenance positions, and they're not able to take vacation or sick days in the winter months.

"They'll be out there sick and still plowing because they know that if they're off, then someone else is covering for the route, and they don't want to put that toll on someone else."

Pogodzinski and Kruger were asked to look for a way to fit the position into the budget without an increase. Actual hiring was not approved.

Budget matters discussed

A $203,000 proposed increase in the county's Human Services budget for 2013 came back for discussion, but no solutions were offered.

Human Services Director Linda Bahr reported that over 80 percent of the cost increase is attributable to being fully staffed again.

When asked if cuts can be made, Bahr replied, "Everything we do is mandated," but offered to go through the line items again.

She presented the board with documentation that Human Services has lost over $600,000 from its fund balance since 2006.

Commissioners were reminded that Public Health has also spent $263,000 more than it has taken in during recent years.

Finance Director Carol Lapham said that the county still needs to trim $504,000 from the proposed budget to get the 2013 total down to where a 9 percent tax levy increase will cover costs.

State cuts to county program aid (CPA) and cuts to reimbursements have repeatedly been cited at county board meetings as part of the problem.

Lapham added that with 2012 spending totals becoming clearer, it appears that the county will use up $226,000 of its fund balance during the year. That's because a zero percent increase in the levy last year didn't cover costs.

"We're not going to come out ahead this year in the general fund," Lapham said.

EAW update given to board

Environmental Services Director Rick Frank reported that the environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) for the Tracie Erickson mine that Minnesota Sands has been developing will soon be ready for review.

Frank said he had interviewed a neutral third-party firm on Nov. 9 that may be able to go over the document on behalf of the county.

Most of the consultants that he contacted to do the job are already involved with frac sand companies, Frank noted.

The cost to the county and the company's qualifications will most likely come to the board next week, he added.

"I hate to see the money being spent on this (consultant)," Chairman Jack Miller said, "but there's a need for complete transparency."

Frank said that the Frac Sand Study Committee is recommending that future applicants will need to pay the county's costs when an impartial review of an EAW document is ordered.

Mayo staff visits board

Dr. R. Ross Reichard of Mayo Clinic in Rochester met with board members, along with members of his staff.

Recently appointed as medical examiner for Houston County, Reichard introduced himself and gave a briefing on his qualifications, which included serving as assistant chief medical investigator for the State of New Mexico.

"We (Mayo) basically have all the sub-specialties and pathologists covered within the Mayo system," Reichert said. "What we're proposing is a regional scenario. We would work with local death investigators here."

Although the region-wide center is a recent development, Reichert said that Mayo has provided forensic services to Olmsted County for decades.

Kruger said that the one-year contract with Mayo is just about settled as far as final details.

After 2013, the agreement might be tweaked to take into account any issues that crop up in the interim, Reichert added.

Kruger stated that the county has traditionally sought four-year contracts for medical examiner/autopsy services.

Other news from the board

Frank also asked the board to approve a hauling permit application for Ole's Excavation, which they did. That company is engaged in demolition of a tax-forfeited house in Houston.

Another county-ordered demolition/cleanup has resulted in a public hearing for Tuesday, Nov. 20.

Commissioners ordered that meeting to consider the adoption of a $30 fee for revenue recapture proceedings.

The disposal of a meth trailer in Caledonia triggered the issue, since the owners of the trailer have so far made no effort to pay county costs.

The board approved a final payment of $19,601 on the recently completed CSAH 6 culverts project, which overran its $354,754 bid total and ballooned to $392,037 due to "poor soils", which necessitated extra hauling.

Commissioner briefly discussed housing inmates from surrounding municipalities at the Houston County Justice Center.

Commissioner Justin Zmyewski noted that at current staffing levels, the Justice Center is approved by Minnesota Department of Corrections to hold 30 prisoners, while it currently hosts 16 or 17 on a typical day.

The board approved advertising the sale of 22 acres originally purchased as a building site for a new highway shop/highway department headquarters.

Auditor Char Meiners told commissioners that statutes require the sale to be listed in the official county newspaper.

Commissioners noted a letter from contractor J.B. Holland, which protested the recent rejection of a conditional use permit (CUP) for removal of fill for a road project.

Zmyewski noted that Holland had every right to remind the county of the costs and inconveniences that the rejection brought on, but defended the board's decision to listen to three township commissioners who opposed the measure.

In the meantime, the company applied for another CUP at a neighboring site, and that hearing was scheduled to occur on Nov. 15. Look elsewhere in this week's Herald for the article about that hearing.