County argues funding of ‘cats and kids’
The debate remained hot and heavy right up until the end as Carlton County Commissioners attempted to hammer out a final budget and levy Monday night.
On hand were contingents from the Restorative Justice (RJ) program, the Friends of Animals and the Soil and Water Conservation District, all of them lobbying for additional dollars above and beyond what what was initially budgeted for them.
Personnel from the RJ program requested that $75,000 be added to the program's budget of $140,000 in order to more fully expand the program to the county's school districts. The additional amount would allow the program to add another full-time staff person to help with the additional responsibilities as the program grows and expands. Commissioner Dick Brenner, though he agreed that the RJ program has been effective, said he wasn't willing to budge.
"I think we should just leave it at the current $140,000 to fund the two full-time people who are there now," said Brenner. "The program is working very well as it is, and I don't see a need to change that. Once the program moves outside the criminal justice system, I think we need to look into how others can help fund it."
Commissioner Tom Proulx, who has personally been active with RJ from the start, patently disagreed.
"I think we should fund it fully," said Proulx. "We can't afford not to. We have to make a choice to either work with our young people before they get into the criminal justice system — or wait until they're already in it."
Brenner said he felt he current program size is sufficient, pointing out there are only about 30 kids in the program.
Proulx fired back, saying that number is not an annual number but rather the average number of young people cycling in and out of the program at any given time.
RJ coordinator Paul Mickelson backed him up, telling commissioners that the number of RJ "circles" in the program has gone from six to 10 — and is growing.
"We have a very big caseload, and it's a fluid and moving target," said Mickelson. "I don't see that going away."
Mickelson went on to point out that the RJ program has helped keep kids from dropping out of school and from starting out in the criminal justice system at an early age, and reduced out-of-home placement costs as well.
"Keeping kids, who are our most valuable resource, on the right track is a better, safer way to keep our communities where they should be," said Mickelson.
Brenner said he wasn't arguing the merits of the problem but rather who should pay for it.
"As you continue to expand it [outside the criminal justice system], it shouldn't be totally the county's responsibility to fund it,” said Brenner.
Commissioner Gary Peterson suggested that perhaps the county needs to sit down with all of the partners who benefit from the RJ program, such as the schools, and discuss that very thing.
Proulx said the reality of the situation is that the schools have financial burdens of their own and they will likely have little to no money to put toward RJ even though they appreciate and support it.
Audience member Trish King stood to address the commissioners, saying her grandson was part of the RJ program.
"We have had the privilege of working with these guys," said King, referring to Proulx, Mickelson and others affiliated with RJ. She said her grandson is now 17 years old and is much more like a normal kid again. "He was confronted by someone in school a few weeks ago," King related. "Two years ago he would have hit back, but this time he just continued to tell the other kid that he didn't want to fight. Except for all the help from the Restorative Justice system, he wouldn't be here now — he'd be in jail. Kids need someone to talk to, to know someone cares about them."
Peterson acknowledged that he believes in the value of the program and proposed a compromise to their funding request, proposing a motion to fund a part-time person for the RJ program at a cost of $35,000, with no health benefits.
Proulx seconded the motion and it passed, with Brenner casting the lone dissenting vote.
Next up was the proposal for $55,000 in additional funding for the Friends of Animals (FOA) shelter. The county currently contributes $9,500 a year toward the FOA's spay and neuter program. Individual municipalities, townships and the Fond du Lac Reservation contract for an additional $70,000 in animal control services from the FOA. The cost of actually running the shelter, stated Executive Director Cindy Haglin, comes strictly through events, fundraisers and donations. With the once-plentiful reserve from the donations of a handful of generous benefactors practically dried up, she said the FOA needs another $55,000 a year to continue operating.
At previous meetings, the Board has questioned the financial practices of the FOA as well as some of its procedures.
"I have to question how long you can continue as a no-kill shelter," said Brenner. "You can't keep animals around forever. There has to be a breaking point."
Haglin explained that being a no-kill shelter means animals are only euthanized if they are deemed unsafe, critically injured, or critically ill, with no financial means of saving them.
"We never euthanize for lack of space," said Haglin. "If an animal goes five or six months without being placed, we trade it to another shelter to introduce it to a new market."
Commissioner Marv Bodie stated he doesn't know if the county is obligated by law to support the shelter.
"I don't know that it's our job to keep it going," he said.
Haglin said if the shelter is not funded adequately enough to continue its services, the burden would then fall on law enforcement.
Sheriff Kelly Lake affirmed that her office is required by statute to deal with neglected, abused and/or dangerous animals in the county, picking them up and finding someone to take care of them.
"We are sometimes called upon to remove neglected animals from homes, but we have nowhere to keep them," admitted Lake.
Bodie chided the FOA for coming to the Board late in the year with their financial problems, when they have known about them for quite some time.
"You threw this in our lap when you found you had no more money and tried to make it look like it was our fault," said Bodie. “I don't like doing business like that."
Haglin said though the FOA knew it was coming to this point, it had hoped to remain independent for as long as possible.
Next it was County Coordinator Dennis Genereau who threw his hat in the ring.
"You have to get your ducks in a row better than you have," said Genereau. "The question of funding goes beyond cats and dogs. I live on a farm and have several cats and two dogs, one of which was from your shelter, but when it comes to choosing between [funding] cats or kids, I'd pick kids any day of the week."
Genereau cautioned the FOA that it needs to be "more efficient, more effective and more mindful."
Once again, it seemed that Proulx was the lone man out.
"The county has a responsibility to do something to help these people," he said. "I won't support a levy that doesn't increase their funding. I serve the Third District, which is basically Cloquet, and the people of that district are asking me to vote for this."
Proulx suggested the FOA might consider having one of the commissioners sit on its board of directors to help guide its future direction and further stated that he believes giving the FOA $13,000 quarterly would be "a fair amount."
Bodie asked Haglin how much the FOA has managed to reduce its expenses thus far, and Haglin said the number of volunteer hours has gone from 100 in July to 400 in November, effectively cutting down on the cost of wages by as much as $2,000 in one month.
Brenner asked if the FOA would be willing to move its shelter elsewhere, saying the current lot and facility are in a prime business district.
Haglin said the organization would certainly be open to that if the county was willing to help find another location and/or contribute to the cost of a new building with the proceeds from the old one.
Bodie then offered a compromise suggestion, proposing that the county increase its funding to the FOA by $10,000 a quarter, assuming that staffing costs can continue to be cut back by some $2,000 a month, with quarterly reviews of the shelter operations and a commissioner working alongside them to make certain that happens. Brenner reiterated the fact that the county will work with the FOA to market its current building and lot, with an eye toward a possible move.
"You may find you have to make some changes along the way, changes you might not otherwise agree with,” Brenner said. “Can you live with that?"
Haglin was candid. "I don't know," she replied.
The measure passed the Board, with Proulx voting against it because he believed the funding amount should be higher.
Finally, Jim Nynas, chair of the Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), came before the Board asking for an additional $5,000 in funding to help restore the SWCD's fund balance. Nynas explained the fund balance fell from some $39,000 in early 2012 to only $8,000 in November 2014, due in large part to the funds expended on behalf of the 2012 flooding. He said many of the SWCD's projects are grant funded, and the only way that administrative costs can be paid until a project is over and the grant funding kicks in is through the fund balance.
Once again, the Board favored a compromise, keeping a close eye on the maximum 4.9 percent budget increase signed off on in September. Bodie suggested that when the SWCD finds itself in a bind in funding its administrative costs, the county will give it a "loan" for that amount until the grant funding kicks in.
Nynas pointed out that the SWCD is audited every year and it would not sit well if the District didn't have enough funds on hand to cover its expenses. The Board nonetheless stuck with its plan and voted to keep the District at its originally budgeted amount with the added contingency, if needed.
In other end-of-year measures passed by the Board, Commissioners voted to increase the 2015 commissioners' salaries by 2 percent, which represents the first increase in eight years. Proulx voted against the increase, saying later that he believed the money would be better spent on the FOA and Restorative Justice programs. The Board also voted to increase the salaries of non-bargaining unit employees by 4 percent, the same as the cost of living agreement with three of the county's four bargaining units.
Further, commissioners approved an increase of 2 percent for other elected positions, despite Genereau's recommendation of 4 percent to keep the increase consistent with the other positions in the county. The measure passed on a vote of three to two.
Commissioners unanimously approved the final 2015 levy at an increase of 4.95 percent and the final budget, as adjusted, at $49,930,000.
Finally, the Board expressed its appreciation to long-time coroner Dr. Ricard Puumala, who is stepping down at the end of the year, as well as out-going commissioner Bob Olean, thanking both men for their years of dedicated service.