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SWCD appeals to county for financial help

Darren Newville, district manager for the Wadena Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) and the East Otter Tail SWCD, appeared before the Wadena County Board of Commissioners at their Oct. 4 meeting to ask for financial help for the ailing Wadena SWCD. He was accompanied by SWCD supervisor Marvin Runyan.

The Wadena SWCD will run out of funds by the end of this month, Newville told the board. He said it costs about $15,000 per month to operate the SWCD at the current staffing level. Staffing levels have already been reduced. The previous SWCD manager left in May, and one full-time staff member was laid off in July. The only remaining staff are two people on 80 percent time, and Newville, who works 18 to 20 hours per week for Wadena and 18 to 20 hours per week for East Otter Tail SWCD.

The county pays about $61,000 per year to the SWCD, which is about one-third of the organization's $180,000 budget. The Wadena SWCD provides many services to the county, including administering the county's water plan, the feedlot inspection program, the Wetland Conservation Act programs and agricultural inspections.

Newville told the county board that the SWCD's current financial crisis is partially due to the Minnesota state government shutdown. The shutdown delayed the distribution of funds that SWCDs normally receive from the Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources, delayed grant applications and processing, and delayed other funds. He said that the state funding distributions are about two months behind. The money due to come from the state to the SWCD likely will not arrive in time for him to make payroll for October and November.

Commissioners discussed the situation and decided to assist the SWCD by making an early payment of county funds budgeted for the SWCD for 2012. Auditor/Treasurer Char West said that an early payment to the SWCD would not be a problem for the county cash flow. The board voted to advance $30,755 to the Wadena SWCD now, so that the organization can continue to operate through the end of the year, and until the state makes the expected funding payments.

Another matter that came before the board was a proposal from the county management team, represented by Ryan Odden, county engineer. Odden offered a proposal drafted by the management team for the provision of human resource services and labor attorney services beginning Jan. 1, 2012.

The management team proposal recommended that the state Merit System be hired to provide services "for first level human resource level consultation, supervisor training, [and] pay equity issues," and that the county contract with Thomas Fitzpatrick Law Office in Brainerd "for labor attorney and labor negotiation needs." There was no financial information available from the Merit System about what its services would cost, but Fitzpatrick offered his services to the county at $150 per hour.

Paul Sailer, Social Services director; Deana Skov, planning and zoning director; and Odden participated in a discussion with commissioners following Odden's presentation of the proposal.

Sailer's department, the Social Services department, is the only county department that participates in Minnesota's social services Merit System.

Minnesota Statutes 261.002 explains the human services merit system: "The term 'merit system' as used herein shall mean the rules for a merit system of personnel administration for employees of local social services agencies adopted by the commissioner of human services in accordance with the provisions of section 393.07 (>)"

A dialogue about the proposal took place.

Board Chair Rodney Bounds asked Sailer, "What are the Merit System services?"

Sailer replied that the services were telephone consultations about employee issues and advice about whether the department manager involved should call an attorney about the problem.

Commissioner Lane Waldahl asked, "What happens if an employee wants to talk to a human resources person on some personal issues?"

Sailer said, "It's rare that a person wants to talk about a job classification issue, and if they do, they can look on the website."

Waldahl said, "I mean a personal problem or a medical problem or a problem with another employee. Is there a human resources person who can talk to our employee?"

Sailer said, "That sounds like it would be appropriate for a referral to the employee assistance program that the county has."

Waldahl said: "I want the employees and department heads to be able to talk to someone face to face. If the Merit System will send someone up, that's OK, but if it's over the phone or by mail, that's a problem for me."

Bounds said, "I agree with Lane. We need someone local that they can call on or see and discuss it with. They got to have somewhere to get it off their chest."

Skov said: "Most things that happen with employees are things that department heads can be approached about first. Where it is an issue where the employee has a problem with a department head, that's different. But union members can call their business agent."

Waldahl repeated, "A human resources [HR] person is someone they can talk to in confidence. I'm in favor of it for any type of organization."

Bounds said: "I don't think we have that many issues here."

West said, "When Mike Gibson was first hired in 2008 to provide HR services, he did have drop-ins all the time. And once those questions got taken care of, the volume got reduced. But pretty much there is something going on all the time that is of an HR nature."

Waldahl said, "In the past, when a grievance came to us as commissioners, we looked at it, and we took it to an attorney, and the attorney dealt with it almost like an HR person. When it first started [with Mike Gibson], we had lots of issues and it was a lot of time, but [Gibson] solved a lot of these problems, and that's why there's less time being used now. I think we need to have an HR person on call, as a benefit to employees."

Then there was a discussion about using a labor attorney and how much that costs, usually between $150 and $220 per hour. Eventually, Bounds said, "We have to figure out these things before we go along with what you're suggesting. We're not going to do nothing today."

Waldahl said, "We don't know if the Merit System will cover the rest of the employees [who are in unions]. How many counties does the Merit System work with that have HR personnel on staff?"

Sailer replied, "Most counties have HR in house and would consult with them before they go to the Merit System. There aren't many counties left in the state that don't have HR."

In other business, the board:

• approved 12 weeks of Family and Medical Leave for employees Shawn Hagen and Bunni Olson.

• hired back retired employee Dave Selisker on a temporary basis to assist County Assessor Lee Brekke in the fall rush. Selisker will work two days per week for no more than 67 days at his previous rate of pay and grade.

• rescinded a motion made on Sept. 16 to approve a solid waste hauling contract, and made a new motion to approve a one-year contract with Otter Tail Trucking for transportation and disposal of municipal solid waste.

• approved a set of quotes for remodeling the Auditor/Treasurer's office for a total of $41,702.

• approved the purchase of fencing materials and installation services at the Wadena County Fairgrounds from Willis Rubber Company for $26,257.