July 1, 2024 at 1:38 p.m.
Cass County Board:

County Department heads deliver annual reports


By Kyndra Johnson | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

   DEEP PORTAGE — Cass County department heads met for the county’s annual planning meeting Thursday, June 20 and shared the market trends of 2024, a legislative update and foreseeable issues for 2025. The topic most departments spoke about was even though this was a bonding year for legislature, no bonds were passed. Therefore, the county will not receive any money to assist in any large projects needing to be completed.

   The following are departmental reports:

Budget Update

   County Administrator Josh Stevenson shared an update on the 2024 budget by sharing the county will be spending approximately $75,919,977 which is $4.5 million less than 2023. It was also mentioned the property tax levy has increased 13.25 percent over the previous year due to the market study conducted regarding employee salaries and the change in the employee health program.  Stevenson also informed the board this is the last year for all COVID funds to be used, which began in 2021. 

Administrator

   Joshua Stevenson shared in his report the county is continuing to experience an influx of growth, however Cass county is no longer the fastest growing county. Although with the growth attracting and maintaining staff has improved significantly.  Stevenson also mentioned no special session is anticipated this year in the legislature, and with that there also will be no help from the State on any capital projects.

   Issues for 2025 Stevenson mentioned were the newly passed Family Medical Leave Act and the increased cost the county will see with this and the lack of funding for ambulance services in rural areas.

Assessor

   Assessor Mark Peterson reported property market values are beginning to level off with the county’s overall estimated market value up only 4.32 percent excluding new construction and state assessed.

   New construction value is down 6 percent for a total of $151,476,400, while new home starts are also down 27 percent. Real estate sales are up by 32 percent for the first quarter of 2024, however foreclosures were down 38 percent for the first quarter with a total of 5.

   Peterson mentioned the Local Board of Appeal and Equalization appeals continues to decline as values level off. 

   In legislative activity, it was mentioned there were no property tax changes passed this year.

   Staffing remains one of the foreseeable issues for the assessor’s office, currently the department has three fully licensed appraisers. Also, the department will need to begin new education for the staff as education is on a four year cycle, which is up in July. Peterson also shared a future issue will be upgrading technology. Currently the assessor’s office still utilizes paper when in the field, where most neighboring county’s have gone mobile. Peterson stated he feels the mobile devices don’t seem to save any time or money as staff still needs to enter information into the system when they get back to the office. Therefore, he doesn’t feel investing in the technology for the foreseeable future. 

County Attorney

   Attorney Ben Lindstrom reported the department is now fully staffed and currently has a certified student attorney on staff. He feels that the market study significantly helped make the county more competitive. Lindstom also mentioned the department has reduced the number of legal secretary positions from four to three due to increased efficiency and court cases.

   One of last years foreseeable issues is now a current issue the department is seeing which is with the legalization of marijuana and paraphernalia the sheriff’s department can’t search cars or homes, therefore illegal drugs are getting missed. 

   An issue Lindstrom foresees in 2025 is with truancy in area youth.  It was mentioned with the Zoom option for court hearings nobody participated in any in-person hearings and there was actually only one that participated via Zoom. Therefore, Lindstrom is not going to pursue truancy cases and let the schools continue to handle them.

Central Services

   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. Buhl also mentioned with increased use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (anything you hook a mobile device to such as Alexa, Siri, Thermostats, etc.) staff needs to be aware of applications they may download onto county devices.

   Legislative activity pertinent to the department is the passing of the Cyber security Incident Reporting Bill, which requires the reporting of cyber security incidents impacting public-sector organizations. Also, legislature discussed how to regulate AI and did not pass the Computer Science Education Advancement Act.

   The issues for 2025 Buhl foresees involves the increased costs to secure and maintain the network infrastructure and maintain and upgrade older County buildings and the increased need for space within county buildings.

Chief Financial 

Officer

   With just over 3 months in the position, Chief Financial Officer Becky Toso stated she is working on catching up, after the position was open for six months, and making sure nothing is missed. Toso did mention that money received through the American Rescue Plans Act is wrapping up with everything expected to be distributed by the end of the year.

   In a legislative update, Toso shared no bonding bill was passed therefore there will be no state assistance for any big projects the county needs to complete. With no bonding bill being passed that brings up the issues Toso foresees for 2025 with the county needing to evaluate capital needs assessment items, such as the transfer station and improvements to the Walker Courthouse and Annex.

Court 

Administration

   Krista Smith reported with the small staff within the department they are beginning to specialize in areas and do some cross-training with neighboring counties. This will allow staff to take time off and not fall behind on work. 

   In legislative updates Smith shared a few new laws, one being competency attainment statute which will connect people with assistance to help them stand trial. Another item addressed is offering services to jurors to assist in trauma they may suffer from when sitting for a trial. The final item Smith covered was legislature just passed a law allowing courts to serve citizens with order for protection and harassment cases by certified mail rather than a sheriff. This will allow the order to be served at a faster rate as sometimes the offender cannot be located.

   2025 issues mentioned were staff training and retention, as some staff is looking for promotions outside of the department. Also, the courts are looking at getting people back into the court and are recommending the discontinuation of remote trials and resume trials in person which will require some calendar adjustments within the department.

Environmental 

Services

   Director Jeff Woodford along with County Planner Scott Wold reported that although there was a decrease in building permits for the period from July 1, 2023 through June 17, 2024 as the same period the previous year, building permits are still at an all-time high. Solid waste activity also continues to rise with the department seeing about a 9 percent increase for the same time period.

   Wold mentioned the department is receiving numerous complaints about short-term rental property, therefore the county is preparing an ordinance to outline some regulations in hopes of resolving disputes between neighbors.

   Woodford then shared the upcoming issues for the department stating there is pressure for more government zoning and control, however they do not want the associated additional costs. The department will also be working on various ordinance updates during 2025.

Health, Human, 

Veterans Services

   Director Brian Buhmann reported that the department is nearly fully staffed and only short a couple of positions, one being a Statewide Health Improvement Partnership (SHIP) coordinator. Currently the department is also having the challenge of addressing local opioid, cannabis and other substance use disorders. Buhmann mentioned currently they are addressing product placement for tobacco products to not make them look appealing to kids. 

   Another item discussed was the lack of affordable housing and day care providers in the area, which is making it hard to hire staff. 

   In the legislative update, Buhmann shared there is one-time funding from the state in the amount of $5.4 million for food security. It will be split up with approximately $2 million allocated to food security, $2 million to area food shelves and banks and $1 million to American Indian food sovereignty. It was noted even though the funding will help out it won’t be enough as there are approximately 400 food shelves that will be splitting the $2 million.

   Amongst the 2025 issues are recruitment of service providers for locally needed services, the modernization of state technology continues and there is a transition to a new Department of Children, Youth and Families.

Highway

   County Engineer Darrick Anderson reported the 2024 county state highway funding program saw a increase in funding of $366,000 for construction and $244,000 for maintenance. A current challenge the department is seeing is a delay in delivery for equipment purchased. Anderson also mentioned the cost on maintenance program contracts have increased 30-100% with striping increasing the greatest due to only one company currently offering the service within the state.

   In the legislative update, Anderson shared that with no bonding bill in 2024 the Bridge Bond funding will run out this month. Also, there will be increases at the State level for all special projects and earmark funding. 

   One issue for 2025 is the possibility of Monarchs being put on the endangered species list and causing an impact to construction and maintenance programs. Anderson mentioned if the department enters into a preventative program before they are placed on the endangered species list then they won’t have to follow all of the rules set forth once they are placed on the list.

Human Resources

   Allison Magnus, payroll and benefits and human resources official, stated she is focusing on employees and trying to enhance recruitment and retention. The County is also working on coming up with a work model that will work for all employees. They are currently trying to get all employees back in the office, but some still want a hybrid option which is causing conflict in some departments.

   Magnus shared with the new Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) benefits to begin in 2026, the county may see employees wanting to take more time off.

    The 2025 issues are preparations for labor negotiations for 2025 and various staff trainings.

Land

   Land Commissioner Mark Gossman reported timber markets are stable and slowly catching up on harvest after the lack of winter. It was mentioned there is an increased Geographic Information System need for server space as currently this is on a separate hard drive. 

   Gossman discussed the recent ruling regarding the tax forfeiture lawsuit and the effects it will have on Cass County moving forward. The State Legislature did allocate $109 million to a hold county’s harmless fund for a look back on all tax forfeitures.

   An ongoing issue is that the Northern Long Eared Bat has now been placed on the endangered species list. Also, Forest Stewardship Council is looking into possibly viewing contractors as  employees. 

Probation

   Director Jim Schneider stated that there has been a decrease in number of pretrial bail evaluations and also there has been a decrease in violent juvenile offenses.   

   In the Legislature update Schneider mentioned the juvenile delinquency age has changed from 10 years of age to 13 years of age.

  2025 issues Schneider foresees are continuing the collaboration with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibewe’s probation department, standardized supervision levels across the state and staffing levels.

Auditor-Treasurer-Recorder

   Auditor-Treasurer Lisa Shadick reported with the retirement of Katie Norby, it was decided to combine the Recorder’s office with the Auditor-Treasurer office. Shadick is still fairly new also with just six months under her belt and is also getting adjusted to the job. 

   The department saw an increase in online payments for taxes and fees, it seems citizens are ok with paying the extra fee as opposed to driving to the courthouse or mailing their payment. Also, there was an increase in electronic recording of documents.

   Recently the state has changed the State Flag and Seal, which is going to require all notary stamps, forms and documents to be replaced by January 1, 2025 at the expense of the county.

   Some issues for 2025 that were noted was the anticipated retirement this year and another one in 2025. With those Shadick is looking at implementing cross training within the department to help create efficiencies and increase customer service.

Sheriff

   Sheriff Bryan Welk stated that as of June 1 the partnership with Itasca County to house some inmates began and seems to be going well so far, although there has been one incident where an inmate broke a window. Staffing seems to be near capacity with only a couple of positions currently vacant. 

   Overdose calls continue to be a constant concern with the department responding to 80 overdose calls during 2023, many of which were the same offenders.

   Issues/challenges for 2025 Sheriff Welk foresees will be the increased cost of goods/supplies along with availability. The planning for a storage/evidence/training facility, as the building in Backus will not be sufficient for the needs of the department, is another challenge. A final challenge the department will face is to monitor the effectiveness of the new ATV county ordinance.  

2025 Budget 

Schedules

   Cass County’s five citizen appointees and two county commissioners (budget committee) will receive departmental requests and prepare a proposed 2025 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 26 — Departmental requests due

   • Aug. 16 and 30 — Budget committee reviews requests and prepares the preliminary budget and levy,

   • Sept. 3 — County Board sets preliminary levy,

   • Oct. 4 and 11 — Budget committee makes additional budget changes,

   • November — Truth in taxation notices mailed to taxpayers,

   • Dec. 3 (6 p.m.) — Public hearing on proposed budget,

   • Dec. 17 — County board sets final levy and budget.


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