THE COUNTY LINE: Biased, yes, but Polk County deserves an A+ on its report card

District 2 Polk County Commissioner Warren Strandell

As we continue to hold back from embarking on a complete return to normalcy because of the COVID-19 pandemic there has been ample time to reflect on life, our jobs, responsibilities, and how we got to where we are. It seems that a vaccine will be the only way out of this problem. In the meantime, we need to continue to practice social separation and the use of face masks when out in the public. 

At least for those of us in Polk County with our population of 31,000 and the recently reported number of 81 positive cases, the math indicates that the infection rate is minimal at about only a .0026% chance. While somewhat comforting, this percentage should not be reason to not exercise all prevention efforts. 

With time to let my mind wonder, I have done a review of how county business has been conducted through the years. Despite some pretty big bumps in the road, things have gone pretty well in the more recent years. 

First, Polk County is in good financial shape and it has excellent staff in all departments… people who are not only very good at their jobs but are more than up to adapting to the ways that computerization has come into play.

Second, our infrastructure is being kept up and in good shape. In fact, after the remodeling that is currently underway at the Human Services Center in East Grand Forks and the replacement of the elevator in the Government Center in Crookston are completed this year, there will be no major needs on the table as far as capital projects go. 

There will, of course, always be the roof that needs to be replaced and equipment that needs to be updated but those things that can usually be accomplished within regular budgeting.

Third, the remaining debt (about $7.3 million) from the $17.5 million bond issue that was sold in 2005 to construct the Northwest Regional Corrections Center jail will be retired in February 2026. That’s just  little more than five years away. 

Those remaining jail bonds are being retired by money generated — at more than $1 million a year — from payments received for housing of inmates from other jurisdictions in beds that would otherwise go unused. As a result, no money for bond repayment is coming from property taxes. 

A smaller $3 million bond issue was sold in 2015 to convert space in the old jail for use by the Sheriff’s Department and to create a new Dispatch Center. Money from this bond issue was also used to develop officing for the County Attorney’s Office in unused space on the second floor above the new jail. There was money in this bond issue, too, to remodel the space on the ground floor that the County Attorney left, which allowed Public Health to relocate there and quit renting quarters. This bond issue will be retired at about the same time as the jail bonds.

A more recent $3 million bond issue was sold earlier this year to finance the extensive remodeling underway in the East Grand Forks building and to do some other maintenance work. This issue has a 10-year repayment plan.

The current healthy financial condition didn’t happen by accident. In fact, there has been a complete turn-around. Polk County was all but broke after the flood of 1997. 

When agriculture was in dire straits in the early1990s, virtually all county reserves had been used up to avoid raising taxes. Then came the flood, which destroyed the real estate valuation of property in East Grand Forks. Only 8 homes there escaped flooding. Virtually nothing was left at full value for taxation.

I have a financial statement showing the county’s General Fund balance at one point in 1998 at just $23,000. This wasn’t enough to cover more than a day or two of operating expenses. 

To survive, money was borrowed from the Social Services Fund, which had funds received from state and federal governments to pay for certain social services. This borrowed money was used to keep things going until the next round of taxes could be collected and the Social Services Fund could be repaid. The county limped along in the months after that until it ran out of money again and had to borrow from Social Services a second time.

This practice held things together but it certainly didn’t cure everything because there was still another problem. By 1998, the cost of Out of Home Placements had ballooned to $2.4 million a year. Out of Home Placements are required when troubled and or abused juveniles need to be placed in facilities because of their behavior or when their homes have become unsafe and lacking appropriate parenting. Very little of the cost of out of home placements qualify for any state funding and land directly on county property tax money for payment. 

Despite all of the money problems, the County Board found a way to hire five family-based service providers (all new positions) to work with juveniles and their parents to address this problem. This plan was developed by Social Service staff and by a task force that included people from other departments affected by the problem. 

In presenting the request for these hires to the County Board the lead creator of the idea pledged to put his job on the line if it didn’t work. The cash-strapped County Board put things on the line, too, and gave approval in what was a real show of faith. The result has been a tremendous return. 

Through the work of the family based service providers — local people whose main qualifications were that they had a real interest in helping kids and parents — the $2.4 million expense was more than cut in half in a couple of years. After that it was held below the $1 million a year mark for a number of years before inflation finally caught up with things a couple of years ago.

While some people had key roles in the county’s resurgence, no one person(s) can be credited for the turn around. After all, good county government revolves around team play… from the top all the way through to the newest hire. Team play is practiced in Polk County.

As far as the report card mentioned earlier, I give the county an A, better yet an A-plus. But remember, this mark is being given by someone who might be a bit biased.

Thoughts expressed in this column are those of the author and are not necessarily a reflection of the opinions of the other members of the Polk County Board of Commissioners.