St. Louis County's budget keeps growing. Here's where the money goes
The News Tribune spent more than a month accessing county departments and sources.
COOK — Inside a vast garage filled with plow trucks, road graders and the maintenance bays needed to keep that equipment humming, the air temperature was short-sleeve comfortable, all the equipment washed and ready to roll for the season’s first real snowstorm.
In one back corner of the implement hangar sat new technology in the form of a brine blending system aimed at making winter roads safer.
“We can blend our own deicing recipes in-house,” said Chad Skelton, fleet and property manager for St. Louis County.
Applying salt brine to roads is relatively new to the county, which is investing in the equipment at all of its major garages in Cook, Duluth, Ely, Hibbing, Pike Lake and Virginia. Even satellite garages, including three new ones approved for $25.4 million this year for Kugler, Whiteface and Culver townships, will feature the brine systems.
“We know this is the future, and that the old way of applying salt to roads is out the door,” Skelton said.
St. Louis County spends $1.2 million on salt every year. Over time, the new brine systems are expected to curb those costs by offering a less-is-more approach to salt dispersal. The brine mixtures are more environmentally responsible and cheaper than laying down salt crystals on the roads. The brine systems also will pair nicely with the county’s newest plow trucks. The county took delivery of 10 new Towmaster trucks just this year.
Priced at $310,000 each, the trucks feature jet-like cockpits with heated windshields and rear-view mirrors, finger-tip controls, and tanks laid into the dump beds that will carry the brine mixtures out to the roads. Computer readouts inside the cockpit will share road surface temperatures, allowing operators, with the touch of a joystick, to apply just the right amounts to either pretreat the roads before a storm, or deice the roads afterward.
The whole scene is aimed at clearing 3,000 miles of roads with every snowfall. Which, Skelton noted, is actually 6,000 miles given how plow and grader operators have to go down one side of the road, and back the other. Unlike previous eras, when the equipment was stored outside adjacent to modest pole-buildings, there’s no time to jumpstart or heat-up plows, which need to be ready to roll when the snow hits.
“The Public Works Department’s commitment to a level of service for the taxpayer is to have every road in St. Louis County plowed in eight hours after a snowstorm,” Skelton said. “In the olden days, it was a week. Now, it’s one day. And that’s what people expect. They want roads plowed today. Not tomorrow. Today.”
In less than two weeks, the St. Louis County Board will meet in Duluth to consider approval of a 2022 budget set at $463 million, which includes $27 million in new American Rescue Plan Act funds, and is a $43 million increase from this year’s $420.2 million budget.
To better illuminate the complexities of that figure and the proposed net increase of 1.9% on residents’ property taxes, the News Tribune met in recent weeks with several county officials and employees from across the Public Works, Public Safety, and Public Health and Human Services departments, along with the county’s general government offices.
The goal of the budgetary reporting was to give added dimension to the paper budget by illustrating budgetary challenges and investments — learning why budgets grow, how they impact residents, and decisions the county makes to keep the numbers in check as much as possible.
To grasp it all, County Administrator Kevin Gray noted one first needs to consider the totality of the county. It’s a county featuring three courthouses: Duluth, Hibbing and Virginia. All county departments require divisions both north and south along with satellite offices all the way to places like Ely and Kabetogama.
“One of our greatest strengths is our size,” Gray said. “But one of our biggest challenges is our size, too. We can take 13 or 14 contiguous Twin Cities metro counties and fit them geographically inside St. Louis County. When I talk with counterparts in other counties, it almost stops people in their tracks.”
With its roughly 1,800 employees, the county conducts innumerable services, satisfying vital roles as protector of the public, purveyor of justice, health and social safety net, infrastructure steward, and historian of both people and real estate properties.
And those roles, depending on the time, can expand and contract as necessary. Nothing illustrated that more than the COVID-19 pandemic, which has featured the county’s public health department playing a critical role for both testing and vaccinations. As commercial and nonprofit health care providers became stretched during the pandemic, the county has had to beef up its response, for instance, by maintaining regular COVID-19 testing sites in Eveleth, Hibbing and Virginia.
“In the north, we offer three testing sites. Why is that?” said Paula Stocke, deputy director of Public Health and Human Services. “There’s not that capacity in other areas of our community. As (community) capacity goes, ours has had to increase. It’s a constant correlation.”
Protect and serve
At the Sheriff’s Office in Virginia, the News Tribune met with Jon Skelton and Nate Skelton, supervising deputies for Virginia and Hibbing, respectively. They’re two of four supervising deputies in the county, and they’re each responsible for oversight of offices large enough to be autonomous in a smaller county.
Like all departments, personnel costs drive the budget. Seventy-eight percent of the Sheriff’s Office’s $36 million budget will be absorbed by personnel costs in 2022.
“We, as a Sheriff’s Office, got a 3% increase that didn’t even touch any of the equipment we’re talking about,” Jon Skelton said. “It’s gone from contractual decisions made last year.”
The budget increase went to the wages and health insurance costs the county’s 106 deputies contractually negotiated.
“For hiring and retention, our wage has to be up there to stay competitive,” Jon Skelton said.
On the equipment side, the supervising deputies showed off a relatively new impound storage building, where the county is mandated by state statute to hold and protect vehicles confiscated in criminal and drunken driving cases.
They toured through the headquarters of the St. Louis County Rescue Squad outside Virginia, where the county houses its drone and remote-controlled underwater submersibles programs. The drones have required four deputies to be trained and licensed with the Federal Aviation Administration, and have been used in stand-offs recently, even flying inside locations “as a safety aspect, so that we’re not just sending people in blindly,” Nate Skelton said.
As for the underwater submersibles, Nate Skelton lifted one with two hands and noted the county was responsible, by state statute, for any water rescue or recovery. The submersibles are used to recover bodies for a county that has seen a record-breaking rise in the need to conduct rescue and recovery missions, with more than 500 missions every year since 2019.
“It alleviates the issue of putting people in the water,” Nate Skelton said of the submersibles. “There’s added expense and danger in diving in depth and zero visibility. Because these use high-powered sonar, you can run them blindly. We have four of them. They’re not cheap, but they’re fantastic. It’s not often we don’t find what we’re looking for.”
At the Virginia office, the two supervisors showed off improved evidence systems, fuming chambers used to gain finger prints, and exhaust hoods now required for deputies who are handling the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl.
“We’d had a couple of exposures to it, where guys had succumbed to it,” Nate Skelton said, noting the deputies recovered. “Our policy and procedure now is that anything that is suspected or could be fentanyl has to be weighed and processed in the hood, using proper precautions like N-95 masks, goggles and gloves. They also can’t do it themselves. It’s a two-man process.”
Of course, each and any technology has to be purchased in triplicate, so that all of the main sheriff's offices in Duluth, Hibbing and Virginia are outfitted.
Banner year for real estate
Mary Garness is St. Louis County’s director of public records and property valuation, in charge of both the recorder’s and assessor’s offices.
Entering 2020, she kept open a couple of positions in a belt-tightening maneuver made because she was unsure how the year was going to unfold when it came to real estate transactions and building permit inspections. As it turned out, the pandemic elicited a real estate boom. The county processed more than 40,000 real estate documents in 2020 — the first time it had done that since 2013.
“We had an increase in transactions and the staff had to navigate through that while at the same time we had to change the way that we were serving the community,” Garness said, citing increased use of electronic documents, curbside service and appointment-only visits required as county offices were closed to the general public.
The offices buzzed with make-do adjustments for all of its processing, including birth, death and marriage certificates, and the filing of military discharge paperwork.
Over one weekend early in the pandemic, Deputy County Recorder Wendy Levitt, working her 26th year at the county, devised a program adapted for marriage licensing.
“We didn’t have a system in place for people to get marriage licenses, so then Monday morning Wendy comes in here and had put together the entire system of how people can apply online initially,” said Lisa Ciorlieri, an information specialist within the recorder’s office. She said she was impressed with how Levitt took to heart the county’s stated customer service values: people-focused, stewardship, integrity, fairness and innovation.
“Our business plan is structured around our values,” Garness said. “The budget is not just a pie chart. It’s people carrying out services.”
In adapting to pandemic restrictions, the recorder’s and auditor’s offices did so with aplomb.
“There was no overtime,” Ciorlieri said, “people just stepped up.”
To further illustrate its effectiveness, Garness noted the county’s document turnaround time. State statute requires a 10-day turnaround for paper documents and five days for electronic documents. The county’s figure during the 2020 pandemic year was 3.49 days.
“That’s pretty exceptional considering the increased volume of documents and decrease in the amount of staff,” Garness said.
Asked how it was possible, she added: “Efficiency, and having good, well-trained staff.”
Help on the way
For the first time in her six years as a supervisor with St. Louis County, Kelly Sather is requesting an additional social worker for the 2022 budget.
Sather is a social service supervisor in Virginia, overseeing the north’s adult mental health division.
“My workers have been working over their caseload for years,” she said, meaning most of her staff are carting caseloads of well over 30 people each. The state standard is 26-30.
“We’ve really tried to work to manage increased demand with the resources we have,” Sather said, explaining that caseworkers are capped at 37.5 hours per week.
In each of the last two years, civil commitments have spiked, stressing the division’s workload, with 122 civil commitments last year and 130 projected for 2021. A civil commitment for a vulnerable adult is recommended by physicians and implemented by the courts for people who are a threat to themselves or others.
“A civil commitment is something we take very strongly,” Sather said. “You’re impacting someone’s rights, and we don’t want to do that unless there is a clear and convincing reason to do it.”
The rise in civil commitments means overloaded case workers are dealing with more complex cases, often requiring social workers to find out-of-home placements as far away as North Dakota. A civil commitment requires monthly face-to-face check-ins with the person, no matter where they’re housed. Behavioral hospitals can cost the county up to $1,400 per day, meaning there’s pressure on case workers to support stabilizing a person and finding lower-cost, supportive housing.
When Sather started as a case worker 11 years ago, most cases were voluntary, featuring easier paths to recovery. Now, people on civil commitments often come with dual diagnoses of mental health issues along with chemical dependency.
“You can’t compare a caseload of 30 with 15-20 commitments with a caseload of 30 voluntary,” Sather said.
In Duluth, the number of commitments is roughly 1.5 times what’s seen on the Iron Range — 180-190 per year of late. Duluth’s caseloads for its workers are right-sized, and have been for a while. Sather’s budget ask of an additional full-time employee was a long time coming.
“I have to reduce the caseloads,” she said. “We’ve exhausted every opportunity we could to be more efficient. I’m supporting the workers as best I can to make sure caseloads are manageable. I don’t want them worrying they missed something, and that could be someone’s life. I don’t want that for any of them.”
While touring the St. Louis County Government Services Building in Virginia, deputy public health director Stocke observed the ease with which a person can conduct business within the office.
She pointed out rooms where supervised visits happen between parents and children in child protection, where drug testing for child protection cases occurs, the counter where a person might apply for the additional nutritional benefits of the Women, Infants and Children program, and even a place to simply ask for help.
“We’ve got triage social workers who help with all sorts of different things,” Stocke said. “This is your living, breathing county dollar.”
She noted the responsiveness of county leadership to budgets, constantly adapting to changing conditions. For instance, as community centers have become more popular for child care, the county made a decision not to fill one of its home-based child care licensors.
“We’re really trying to be thoughtful about the utilization of our resources,” Stocke said. “We’re trying to be good stewards of the taxpayer dollars."
It’s a constant give and take. Virginia recently lost one of its community partners when an adult mental health residential treatment facility closed due to lack of staffing. It puts pressure on the county to find costlier placements outside of its own borders, incurring travel costs and potential for trauma for the person who has to leave their home county.
The pandemic, in particular, has been hard on community partners as nonprofits and other providers struggle to fill their own staffing needs. When that happens, the county can be forced to absorb new costs.
Additionally, the county serves as a delivery vehicle for mandates that come down from the state and federal governments.
“I don’t think people broadly understand that the county is essentially an arm of the state with many services mandated by state statute, and we need to comply with those,” Gray explained.
The county administrator concluded by noting the county’s commitment to infrastructure, including a $63 million road and bridge construction program in 2022, along with significant investments to come in cyber security.
Not to mention personnel spending — the lion’s share of any departmental budget.
“Quite frankly, our investment in our people is the backbone of our county,” Gray said, “and how we best serve our residents and businesses.”