June 19, 2023 at 1:21 p.m.
BACKUS — Cass County department heads met for the county’s annual planning meeting Friday, June 16 and shared the market trends of 2023, a legislative update and foreseeable issues for 2024. The challenge most departments faced was again the recruitment and hiring of qualified candidates, along with retaining employees. Another topic most departments spoke about was the recent legalization of marijuanna and paraphernalia and the impact it will have.
The following are departmental reports:
County Administrator Josh Stevenson shared an update on the 2023 budget by sharing the county will be spending approximately $80,402,065 which is $9.2 million more than 2022. It was also mentioned the property tax levy has increased 5.06 percent over the previous year and the county’s Local Option Sales Tax brought in $3 million in 2022.
Joshua Stevenson shared in his report the county is continuing to experience an influx of growth due in part to Cass County having the third lowest tax in Minnesota. However, with the amount of people moving into the area, it has not made it easier to attract or maintain employees which still remains a problem and is an ongoing challenge for the county.
Stevenson mentioned this is the first year in a while that the legislature has not had to hold a special session, but there were definitely winners and losers during the 2023 session. Some of the winners mentioned were County Program Aid, Payment in Lieu of taxes, Housing, Public Safety, Transportation and Homelessness Prevention Aid. The losers of the session were the legalization of Cannabis and Capital Projects.
Issues for 2024 Stevenson mentioned were the anticipated increased need for ambulance services, more workforce housing and the realization of hiring contracted services is becoming more expensive than hiring additional staff.
Assessor Mark Peterson reported property market values continue to increase but not as high as the previous year, with the county’s overall estimated market value up over 12 percent excluding new construction.
New construction value is up 19 percent for a total of $160,888,900, while new home starts are up 16 percent. Real estate sales continue to decrease and were down by 41 percent for the first quarter of 2023, however foreclosures were up 166 percent for the first quarter.
Peterson mentioned the Local Board of Appeal and Equalization appeals were down 40 percent with a total of 247, which continues to be more than normal years.
In legislative activity, it was mentioned there were many property tax changes which included: the homestead market value exclusion increasing to $38,000 maxes out at $95,000 and phases out at $517,000; the first tier Ag Homestead increasing to $3.5 million; senior property tax deferral eligibility expanded; Disabled American Veterans spousal benefit qualifications expanded; allowing the use of an Individual Taxpayer Identification number in place of Social Security number on all homestead applications and a one time property tax and renters’ relief through the property tax refund program.
Peterson mentioned it still remains hard to find qualified and licensed people to apply for positions within the department. Currently the department has six appraisers, with only two of them having proper licensure.
Attorney Ben Lindstrom reported the judicial branch continues to use remote court procedures for most hearings. Staffing issues continue to be an issue with the department having an open position for over six months, there have been no qualified applicants. Lindstrom stated neighboring counties are also having issues finding qualified candidates and it is felt with court proceedings continuing to remain remotely more licensed attorneys are choosing to pursue a private practice.
A few issues Lindstrom foresees in 2024 is with the legalization of marijuana and paraphernalia, law enforcement will loose the right to search property with a probable cause which will result in other drugs being missed.
Director Tom Buhl shared that network security still remains a top priority and staff is continuously monitoring the server and upgrading the firewalls to make sure they are not compromised. The department has begun using cloud based storage for the Sheriff’s Department and the County Attorney due to the high volume of files and it being easier access for all departments.
Legislative activity pertinent to the department is the designation of IT systems as Critical Infrastructure, which now means that the Governor can declare a State Emergency if necessary. Also, the State of Minnesota received a grant in the amount of $25 million for Cybersecurity, however $5 million is required to be spent before these fund will be available.
The issues for 2024 Buhl foresees involves the increased costs to secure and maintain the network infrastructure and maintain and upgrade older County buildings. The ability to acquire equipment needed and find qualified employees is also another challenge Buhl sees for the upcoming year.
Sandra Norikane shared information on the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), stating all funds have been received and awarded with Cass County being a leader by utilizing the funds to help the community, while most counties choose to spend the money on county necessities.
In a legislative update, Norikane shared last year a bill was passed in legislation changing the information required for Truth in Taxation notices. Due to this change the department decided to allow residents to access the information from the Cass County website in order to continue to distribute tax notices by the deadline. It was noted there were no complaints or concerns the department will continue to report the information in this manner.
The 2024 issues mentioned were that “all hands were going to be on deck” with it being an election year. Also, there needs to be a review of the county health insurance plan due to the rise of costs in order for the county to remain with a 13 month premium cushion.
Sue Olson mentioned that court cases are continuing to take place via Zoom, and this seems to be the way trials will take place for the foreseeable future due to convenience. Olson stated the court will provide devices to individuals who do not have access to one. It was also noted there has been a reduction of the backlog of court cases.
Olson mentioned Kayla Litter has taken a new position within the department, therefore there will be a new Court Administrator. Currently the department has an interim Court Administrator. Although the department seems to have a seasoned staff, a concern for 2024 is training and retention of staff. It was mentioned the department has a work from home calendar which allows staff the option to work from home two or three days a week.
With the legislative action of legalizing recreational cannabis and the expungement of some previous marijuana related convictions, it was questioned if those cases would be a court action and all individual or a batch case. Olson stated that the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension was managing this action, and the hopes would be for it to be done in one action through the court.
Director Jeff Woodford reported that although there was an increase in permit fees, the department saw a rise of approximately 13 percent in application requests. Solid waste activity also continues to rise with the department seeing about a 2.3 percent increase last year.
Woodford mentioned legislature secured base capacity funding for Soil and Water Conservation Districts with no grant reporting necessary. Therefore, the County will not have to continue to apply for grants to receive funding. It was noted the Capital Assistance Program Grant is still awaiting approval from the legislature, therefore it will more than likely have to be reintroduced next year.
Woodford then shared the upcoming issues for the department with the legalization of cannabis. There will be zoning issues due to this falling under agriculture and the lack of restrictions within the Land Use Ordinance for agriculture. Woodford also mentioned with the lack of grant funding for the Pine River Transfer Station and the cost study being three years old, the department may either need to provide educated guesses on increased costs or invest more money into conducting a new study.
Director Michele Piprude, in her last annual report as director, shared there have been childcare investments made to positively impact the workforce shortage along with housing investments for homelessness. Grants and allocations continue to increase revenue, however the amounts are unknown from year to year.
In the legislative update, Piprude shared that there is a short-term elimination of County cost share for Mentally Ill and Dangerous individuals who await transfer from one facility to another. The 48 hour rule clock has also been modified to begin with the Office of Medical Director or designee determines that a medically appropriate bed is available.
Amongst the 2024 issues are recruiting and retention of employees while competing with the outside job market along with shortage challenges. Piprude did share that the State is modernizing their technology systems.
County Engineer Darrick Anderson reported the 2023 county state highway funding program saw a decrease in funding of $154,000 for construction and $103,000 for maintenance. A current challenge the department is seeing is the cost increases for equipment of approximately 33% and there being delays of 12-18 months. Therefore, the department is possibly looking into refurbished equipment rather than new. Also, Anderson mentioned the cost of bituminous continues to increase which is impacting the construction program.
In the legislative update, Anderson shared
there was a Bridge Bond funding increase of $85 million, however Cass County only has one bridge on the list of bridges to be replaced. The County was awarded $1.4 million for the 2027 Surface Transportation Block Grant Program on County State Aid Highway 29 and $400,000 for Highway Safety Improvement Program Striping.
Allison Magnus, payroll and benefits and human resources official, shared with the board information regarding making the work environment better for employees and creating a healthy organization. The County is also working on bridging the gaps for pay equity and working on more of a flexible work model to entice employees.
Magnus shared with the new Family and Medical Leave benefits to begin in 2026, the county needs to be proactive on planning. This law is allowing employees to remain on leave longer, which may require the county to hire additional staff to cover that position.
The 2024 issues are the advance preparation of labor negotiations for 2025 even though the county just finished negotiating all contracts this past year. It was noted during these negotiations, neighboring counties would go above and beyond what Cass County was offering which would require adjustments to be made to remain competitive. It was also mentioned after the last contract was approved neighboring counties had already offered similar departments better benefits and increased cost of living increases. Another issue is for the county to find a better balance for departments to work remotely.
Land Commissioner Mark Gossman reported market trends are back to pre-covid levels, however timber markets continue to remain positive. It was mentioned due to the lack of contractor availability for reforestation activities the department may have to consider resorting to a two year plan regarding logging.
One issue Gossman mentioned is that the Northern Long Eared Bat has now been placed on the endangered species list, which may affect reforestation activities.
Director Jim Schneider stated that juvenile cases remain constant, however there has been an increase in violent juvenile offenses. The majority of these offenses are from individuals between the ages of 15 to 25.
With the newly passed legalization of marijuana, Schneider doesn’t see it having much affect on juveniles due to it still being illegal to possess and consume under the age of 21 and most people on probation are not allowed to consume mood altering substances.
Issues in 2024 Schneider foresees are developing a new business process for the new funding formula, identifying staffing needs and the increase in county cost for out-of-home correctional placements.
Stevenson reported for Recorder Katie Norby due to her being unable to make the meeting. It was reported that with mortgage rates being higher this was having an impact on the number of items recorded. Therefore, document volumes are low and back to pre-covid levels.
Some issues for 2024 that were noted was the projection of continued low document volumes, the continued rise of interest rates and a possible law change that will affect tax forfeitures.
Sheriff Bryan Welk stated that calls for service are trending back to a pre-pandemic normal. With this, Welk mentioned a future plan to change the amount of staff for the day shift to allow for two deputies to be in vehicles in each of the three areas of the county. This would allow for an area to continue to have an officer in the area if there was an emergency and one had to leave.
Welk also mentioned with the increase of population the nature of calls has changed and the Northland School District has requested hiring a School Resource Officer during the school year, with the City of Remer possibly requesting to hire the officer during the summer months.
A continued issue Welk sees in 2024 for the department is finding qualified citizens willing to work for the department. Other issues/challenges will be the increased cost of goods/supplies along with the availability. The legalization of marijuana is another concern due to possible contact exposure when responding to a call and whether to place that deputy on workman’s compensation leave.
Cass County’s five citizen appointees and two county commissioners (budget committee) will receive departmental requests and prepare a proposed 2024 county budget and levy this summer.
The county board then sets a preliminary levy in September before the budget committee makes additional budget changes in October. The board will hold a public hearing before adopting a final budget and levy in December.
That schedule is as follows:
• July 7 — Preparation packets released
• July 28 — Departmental requests due
• Aug. 18 and 25 — Budget committee reviews requests and prepares the preliminary budget and levy,
• Sept. 5 — County Board sets preliminary levy,
• Oct. 6 and 13 — Budget committee makes additional budget changes,
• November — Truth in taxation notices mailed to taxpayers,
• Dec. 7 — Public hearing on proposed budget,
• Dec. 19 — County board sets final levy and budget.
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