Crow Wing County Board: Board withdraws from CMCC, approves probation integration
A probation partnership spanning more than four decades will soon come to an end.
The Crow Wing County Board Tuesday unanimously voted to withdraw from Central Minnesota Community Corrections, a joint powers probation agency with Morrison and Aitkin counties. The county will instead go it alone, administering probation through Crow Wing County Community Services.
The decision came as part of an examination of the pros and cons of the county's relationship with CMCC, prompted by a request from County Administrator Tim Houle. In April, Houle said the request did not arise from dissatisfaction with CMCC, but instead from a desire to seek efficiencies wherever possible.
"I am simply suggesting that our own experience proves that organizational structure matters, both to service outcomes, efficiency and operating costs," Houle wrote in an April memo to the county board.
Although a task force returned a majority opinion to integrate the two systems, stakeholders—including law enforcement, county judges, the county attorney's office and service providers—questioned whether any benefits exist to making such a move.
Following suit with the last meeting, Tuesday's session was again a contentious affair, with outbursts from those in attendance prompting Chairman Paul Koering to vigorously bang his gavel and to ask Sheriff Todd Dahl to remove anyone who interrupted. The room was once again packed, with a visible presence of law enforcement, including several sheriff's deputies lining the back wall and at least one area police chief—Brainerd Chief Corky McQuiston—in attendance.
Terry defends community services
Community Services Director Kara Terry requested extra time following three agenda items pertaining to community services to give a slide presentation. The presentation, which Terry described as "impromptu," included information she said refuted recent claims of dysfunction in community services. The presentation was not included on the agenda nor mentioned as an addition upon approval of Tuesday's agenda by the county board.
"During this (task force) process, the facts have been continuously misrepresented," Terry said. "We're coming to you today on behalf of the employees of community services to defend their hard work and to show you based on data that they are doing really great work."
Terry's presentation included data showing Crow Wing County Community Services performs better than state and internal goals in several areas, including: time to birth family reunification in child placement; clients not returning to detox within a year; the number of mental health clients hospitalized; the timely processing of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, cash assistance and medical assistance applications; customer satisfaction and employee engagement.
Three awards received by community services were also highlighted: a National Association of Counties 2015 Achievement Award for its TIES software, recognition for SNAP 30-day processing and recognition of customer service practices through the SNAP-Management Evaluation process.
Terry also highlighted a transition from an individualized case system to case banking, which means clients are no longer assigned to specific financial workers. This change, which she said other counties have moved toward as well, affords the opportunity for each staff person to be able to answer questions on a case. This is instead of clients having to wait should their case worker be unavailable for some reason, Terry said.
Terry presented alongside community services supervisors Sheila Skogen and Kara Griffin. Skogen shared the story of a woman who for 10 years received assistance through the county and is now financially able to support her family.
"Not everyone who reports this type of change is going to write a success letter," Skogen read. "But as you are able to read this, know that your job is important and because of you, a single, young mom was able to raise her child in a healthy, stable environment."
Terry concluded the presentation by noting although she feels the criticism of her department recently aired does not "square with the facts," she still appreciates the feedback and will use it to continuously improve how the department functions.
Tempers flare within audience
Five minutes into Terry's 20-minute presentation, Erik Skoog, business agent with the Teamsters Local No. 320, interrupted and began addressing the board. The Local No. 320 represent CMCC probation officers along with all employees in community services except management.
"I think this is a dog and pony show, and I don't believe that CMCC is going to have the same opportunity," Skoog said to applause. "This was not on the agenda."
Koering banged the gavel and told Skoog he was out of order.
"Let's be respectful," Koering said. "Let's not start this."
Terry and the others continued the slide show to completion before Skoog once again addressed the board while Koering instructed him to sit down.
"I think this is a travesty that this goes on, that you don't allow the same time allotted for this," Skoog said.
"This isn't the way it works," Koering said. "This is an official county board meeting. ... If you're going to do that one more time, you're out of here."
Skoog said he would leave himself and continued to loudly call the presentation a "dog and pony show" to more applause.
Shannon Wussow, a CMCC probation officer, asked whether she could respond to Terry's presentation.
"It's impromptu," Wussow said.
Wussow, at the last meeting, shared a letter—written by her mother and former social worker Karen Wussow—claiming an uninviting culture within community services drove her to resign.
Koering told Wussow the board would not hear her response and the time for comments—open forum, a time typically reserved for items not on the board agenda—had passed.
"We're not going to have any comments today," he said.
Those in the audience began shouting comments in Wussow's defense, asking why Terry, Skogen and Griffin had the opportunity to speak while Wussow did not.
"This is the way county government works, we have presentations from different departments, and that's what we had today," Koering said.
Koering said he was not going to argue with anyone and comments would not be accepted.
"Sheriff Dahl, this meeting is getting out of hand, and I'm asking you that if anybody else disrupts this meeting, I'm asking you, Sheriff Dahl, to remove them," Koering said.
After the meeting, Houle said staff reports are common occurrences and have, in the past, come before the board without inclusion on the agenda.
"I think it was in response to allegations that I think staff felt were not supported by the facts," Houle said. "I think they probably felt that their reputation had been impugned. ... It (an impromptu presentation) has happened before and it will happen again."
Houle said although the board chose not to take comments Tuesday, the more than three hours dedicated to public comment at the last meeting was the longest amount of time he'd ever seen the board allow.
"The county board held a public comment period on this issue. They're not required to by law," Houle said. "So to somehow suggest that public comment wasn't taken here? Beyond the pale."
By phone after the meeting, Koering said the board could have made the decision at the last meeting, but chose to wait to consider the decision further.
"At today's board meeting, when that came up on the agenda, that was the board's time to deliberate between themselves and not have any more public comment," Koering said.
Koering said he was unaware of Terry's presentation prior to the meeting.
"I know that she felt like she's been under attack," Koering said. "I guess, as chair, I indulged her to be able to try to answer some of these claims."
Koering said he's been mindful of trying to ensure everyone is heard, although he felt three hours at the last meeting was enough time.
"I felt like we'd already plowed that ground last board meeting," Koering said.
Commissioners explain stances
Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom said she spoke with DeWayne Mareck, county commissioner in Stearns County, where probation was integrated into their social services department seven years ago.
"He said, 'I can't imagine anybody wouldn't do it, because the populations overlap,'" Nystrom said. "It works for better coordination of the delivery of services, and that's what we're about. ... I asked him what the downside was, and he said, 'That we didn't do it sooner.'"
An analysis presented in Terry's report favoring integration found 63 percent of juvenile probation clients and 67 percent of adult probation clients have active or closed cases with community services.
Commissioner Paul Thiede said the county has been discussing this issue for three years and it's not a "johnny-come-lately issue."
"It is following in the lines of what we have done here in trying to integrate and trying to bring offices together," Thiede said. "I understand the emotion in this room, but the fact of the matter is, I believe Kara Terry's summary this morning was based on some pretty heavy accusations leveled without substantiation. ... If we waited until everybody was in line with everything, we wouldn't change at all."
Thiede said he was distressed by the potential for resistance from the probation department and hoped "we can put that aside."
Commissioner Rosemary Franzen said this discussion began with Mark Liedl's 2012 assessment of community services. Liedl, current land services director, was acting as the interim community services director at the time.
Franzen said conversations with others in integrated counties revealed drawbacks were related to uncooperative employees rather than service-related cons. Fiscal responsibility was another concern, she said.
"I just think that we aren't taking this lightly," Franzen said.
Nystrom and Thiede reiterated disappointment with the tone of the discussion, and Thiede said the outcome of their decision was not pre-determined despite claims it was.
Thiede made the motion to approve a resolution drafted by Houle to withdraw from CMCC and integrate probation into community services. Commissioner Doug Houge seconded the motion.
Houge said his opinion was based on information obtained through the task force process, "not from the emotion and some of the behavior that has been presented today," which he called "disappointing."
"I'm going to keep this based on the history of this board and the efficiencies we've gained through integration," Houge said. "I believe there is tremendous opportunity here as well."
The commissioners proceeded to unanimously approve withdrawal from CMCC.
The next step is for the county to complete statutory obligations, including developing a comprehensive plan for community corrections and an advisory board to participate in the formulation of that plan. Statute requires the board include "at least nine members, who shall be representative of law enforcement, prosecution, the judiciary, education, corrections, ethnic minorities, the social services and the lay citizen."
That plan must be approved by the Minnesota Department of Corrections before state funding is allocated for the program.
Financial uncertainty remains
Jason Rausch, who was a business analyst at the time of the task force reports but was recently promoted to financial director for Crow Wing County, was not in favor of integration. He said at the Oct. 20 committee of the whole meeting his financial analysis did not take into account many factors he felt should be included. Rausch noted initial expenses of withdrawing from the agreement would be greater than keeping the agreement as is, based on the information he had.
Rausch said he recognized opportunities for collaboration and to increase the ability to communicate between systems, but this could be done before an official integration.
"After all collaboration efforts have been implemented and we are willing to get into the details of the programmatic impacts of integration then I would agree to integration if there is a defined benefit," Rausch wrote in his report.
Terry said at the same meeting she believed despite the initial costs, value would be derived from integration once further investigation of the impacts on staffing and program delivery was conducted.
"We're certain that there are savings to be seen here," Terry said. "They just might not be realized immediately."