Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Koering questioned a county manager extensively about hiring a social worker because of what he said were his concerns about the cost to taxpayers.

The recommendation at the Tuesday, May 14, meeting was for the commissioners to approve the human resources department action to hire a social worker due to the amount of work.

"The economy is good. I would think there's lots of jobs for people, but yet here we are hiring another social worker, and I guess I want to know why that is," Koering said.

Community Services Division Manager Kara Griffin explained the need to hire another social worker was because of the steady increase in community services child protection cases. "For the past two years, we've seen a 30% increase. We've been back-filling with temp and interns to get that work done, and the work just continues to increase," Griffin said.

Child-protection cases

There were about 450 child-protection cases in the county in 2017, which include out-of-home-placement-of-children cases, and about 50% were drug-related and a third of all the child-protection cases in the county were specifically meth-related, county officials say.

"The budget process wasn't that long ago. Why wasn't this incorporated in your budget for this year? And this is an addition to your budget now," Koering asked Griffin.

Griffin replied, "We had shifted a full-time staff to work on the adoptions, and we thought we would have those completed and have those finalized, and the rest of the child protection numbers would have went down or at least plateaued off. However, they haven't."

Last year, the average number of children in out-of-home placement per month was about 180, and the expenditures for out-of-home placement rose from about $2.5 million in 2014 to almost $5.5 million last year because of its correlation with meth use.

"And why are we taking these children out of their homes?" Koering asked Griffin.

Griffin replied, "The primary factor has been chemical dependency use or mental health, so meth, opioid addiction ... and that's been the primary concern for the children that have come out of the home ... and it's according to statutory guidelines that we follow."

Griffin said the cost to hire a social worker as a county employee would be $24,496 for the rest of 2019 and $45,023 for 2020-figures that do not include the value of associated job benefits.

"What is not factored into this amount would be the reduction in out-of-home placement (of children) costs. If we are able to get those adoptions finalized, that's a decrease in the cost of care or the cost to the out-of-home placement budget, which is a direct levy hit," she said.

"We topped out at 195 kids in care in 2018. We're now down to 160 kids ... so while we're seeing less kids that are coming into care compared to 2016 and 2017, we still have an increase in kids that are being placed in out-of-home placement."

Cost concerns

The county board's record of a reduced tax levy for the last eight years ended when the board approved the 2019 budget and a levy increase of 6.99% at its Dec. 11 board meeting.

"It was almost a 20% increase for the school district, and there's some people that are on a fixed income that, when their taxes go up a substantial amount, it really puts them in a difficult position, and so that's just why I'm asking questions," Koering said.

Commissioner Steve Barrows said, ""Or we can look at hiring this person now-$24,000 hit for this year, which is a small investment, I think, to keep that person in the adoption area doing what she does to reduce that out-of-home placement cost."

The board of commissioners approved the 2019 preliminary budget and levy at its Sept. 25 meeting after County Administrator Tim Houle proposed the levy increase, noting the county would otherwise risk reductions in staff and services.

"Let's say they go to somebody's house, and the house is a mess-you know some people just live that way, I guess-and they say, 'Well, I'm going to take these kids out of this house,' is that happening? Does that happen?" Koering asked Griffin about hiring a social worker.

Griffin replied, "Due to a messy house? We would not be placing kids. According to Minnesota statutory guidelines that would not be screened in unless it was unsafe."

Koering then made a motion to approve the consent agenda, which included the hiring of a social worker. Commissioner Bill Brekken seconded Koering's motion, and it was unanimously passed. Commissioner Doug Houge was absent from Tuesday's meeting.

Suicides, overdoses

According to data released in March by the Minnesota Department of Health, suicide and opioid overdose deaths rose in the state in 2017, continuing a trend started in 2000 and reaching record levels.

At the March 19 committee of the whole meeting, Koering said: "I don't know why we're in such a big hurry to save somebody that's like this? I guess it sounds kind of harsh, but-I don't know-it kind of gets rid of a problem, in my mind."

Koering faced criticism locally and from outside the region, particularly on social media, for the seemingly callous or indifferent remarks he made about the methamphetamine problem in the county. A Brainerd Dispatch editorial also took Koering to task for his recorded comments.

On April 9, Koering's defenders spoke at a board meeting stating they believed the former Minnesota state senator's comments were blown out of proportion in the Dispatch editorial.

The Dispatch editorial stated: "At worst, Koering's comments reveal a lack of compassion and understanding-not only of the drug itself, but of the values of this community."

On Tuesday, Koering addressed the controversy himself.

"I've been, since what the Brainerd Dispatch calls the 'Koering controversy continues,' I've been trying to educate myself on this whole chemical dependency and meth and alcohol, and I still am puzzled by it," Koering said at Tuesday's board meeting.

"I haven't said a whole lot since the meeting where the Dispatch tried to make me look like a bad guy, and I'm not a bad person. It's just that I am concerned about the taxpayer. ... I guess I'm just wondering how much all of this is going to cost at the end of the day," Koering added.

In other business, the county board:

Approved the hiring of Mitch Lundeen, land services environmental services specialist; Nicole Erickson, land services environmental services specialist-in-training; Erik Huseby, highway seasonal engineering assistant; and Jared Blom and Andrew Waltman, sheriff's office correctional officers.

Approved the destruction of recordings of closed sessions from 2009-2016 for labor strategy and performance reviews.

Reappointed for a term of four years Tim Bray as county engineer.

Appointed for a term of four years Erik Flowers as the new county veterans service officer.

Authorized the new veterans service officer to attend the 29th annual Training Conference and Business Meeting of the National Association of County Veterans Service Officers Inc. from June 2- 7 in Cleveland with all expenses to be paid from a grant.

Adopted the social media policy on file, which establishes guidelines for the use of social media, for official business, by county offices or departments.

Accepted donations in the amount of $100 from The Bantam Group Inc. to the TacTeam and $200 from Minnesota Sheriff's Association to the Honor Guard.

Approved the transfer of the 2018 on-sale and Sunday liquor license from JC1 Investments, doing business as Hassies, to Bootleggers Inc., doing business as The Longbranch Saloon, as recommended by the town of Oak Lawn.

Authorized entering into a joint powers agreement between the state of Minnesota and the sheriff's office for work release services provided to state offenders, effective July 1.

Approved first amendment to the prosecution contract between the county attorney's office and the city of Crosby designating that the county attorney will prosecute petty misdemeanor, misdemeanor and designated gross misdemeanor violations occurring within Crosby city limits.

Authorized entering into a grant contract between the county and Anderson Bros. Construction Co. of Brainerd in the amount of $186,186 for milling, bituminous surfacing and concrete repairs on County Road 147 and the county landfill.

Authorized the direct sale of four lots of tax-forfeited property in Crosby to the Crow Wing County Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

Authorized county community services to apply for and accept $1,400 from Blue Plus to purchase teaching tools for the public health nurses to use with infants and children ages 1 to 2 in the family home visiting program.

Approved the reclassification and intended sale of eight tax-forfeited parcels within the city of Nisswa that were forfeited on Jan. 25, 1937, July 16, 1963, and Oct. 2, 2007, after a public hearing.

Approved the land use map amendment request by Roland Tougas of Fort Ripley to amend about 40 acres from agricultural/forestry to rural residential 10.

Appointed to the Natural Resources Advisory Committee Dan Willett to replace Ralph Dehning as the District 5 representative for a term expiring Jan. 31, 2021.