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By LeAnn R. Ralph
HUDSON — Following a fair amount of discussion and several amendments, the St. Croix County Board eliminated funding for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) from a budget amendment resolution to reallocate funding from American Rescue Plan Act dollars.
In his ARPA report to the St. Croix County Board at the October 3 meeting, Ken Witt, county administrator, noted that a number of projects funded by ARPA money had come in under budget and that there was additional money available.
St. Croix county has 15 months left to spend the ARPA money, he said.
The county received $17.3 million in ARPA funds.
ARPA money must be spent by December 31, 2024, and money that is not spent must be returned to the federal government.
“I want to make sure we spend all the money because I don’t plan to send a penny back to the federal government,” Witt said.
The county board allocated $3 million of ARPA money for broadband grants to expand high-speed Internet access in the county. There are eight different broadband packages, and the county has paid out on one, Witt said.
The broadband packages are under budget, and the remaining broadband packages are due by the end of 2024, Witt said, adding that he is concerned about October, November and December of next year and having hundreds of thousands of ARPA dollars left over.
That’s why $900,000 was included for HVAC in the government center project, because the county has federal dollars that will cover the work, he said.
The original resolution considered by the St. Croix County Board included $50,000 for the county clerk’s meeting software upgrade, $75,000 for justice support services for New Richmond drug testing, $125,000 to trench fiber optic cable from the right-of-way to the Glen Hills County Park, $300,000 for CASA of St. Croix County and $900,000 for HVAC associated with the government center project.
CASA of St. Croix County is a non-profit organization that supports and promotes court-appointed volunteer advocates for children and youth who have experienced abuse and neglect.
The $300,000 for CASA should go to the committee-of-the-whole for more in-depth discussion, said Paul Berning, county board supervisor from Hudson.
There is actually $200,000 for CASA in the 2024 budget, and the county board still has to approve the 2024 budget, Witt said.
Providing the money to CASA will help the organization to gain footing to get other grants moving forward, said Carah Koch, county board supervisor from Hudson.
Rick Ottino, county board supervisor from Hudson, said there should be “verification” for CASA.
The judges say it is working, but is there any data going forward? he asked.
St. Croix County provided $50,000 in start-up money for CASA, and then there was $40,000 in the 2023 budget. With the.number of volunteers and the number of children assigned to volunteers, the feedback from the judges is that they appreciate CASA advocates in court, Witt said.
Ottino asked for specific numbers, and Witt replied that he would need to get an updated report.
The money for CASA should go back to the budget committee instead of allocating $300,000 now, Ottino said.
ARPA money is to be used as the St. Croix County Board deems appropriate, Witt said.
“I want to make sure the money is spent by the last deadline,” he said.
CASA is an important, new program. The APRA funding will provide an opportunity to grow the program and expand on the positive outcomes, Koch said.
The ARPA money will allow more time to obtain statistics to help with grant applications, so it is likely CASA will not need any more money from the county, she said.
“It’s a win for vulnerable children, and it will help the program to get on its feet to get more data,” Koch said.
The $300,000 is taxpayer money. Even though the money comes from the federal ARPA funds, it is still taxpayer money, and “it sets a bad precedent,” Berning said.
Berning did not elaborate on what he considered was “bad precedent” — whether it is spending taxpayer money on a non-profit organization, or spending taxpayer money to help vulnerable children, or returning taxpayer money to the taxpayers, or something else.
The $300,000 is in the budget, and county board members can discuss the issue at the committee-of-the-whole, but the county board will not have time before the end of the year for a fifth resolution to amend the 2023 budget, said Heather Amos, county corporation counsel.
The CASA funding would provide $100,000 in ARPA money for the 2023 budget and $300,000 for the 2024 budget, she said.
A motion to amend the resolution to eliminate funding for CASA and the HVAC project failed on a vote of nine “yes” to 10 “no.”
A motion to approve the budget amendment resolution as written failed on a vote of 11 “yes” to eight “no” since a budget resolution requires two-thirds approval, which would be 13 “yes” votes.
The St. Croix County Board then unanimously approved a motion on a voice vote to reconsider the resolution.
Another motion for an amendment to remove funding for the government center HVAC and CASA was approved on a vote of 13 “yes” to six “no.”
In response to a question from a county board member, Amos explained that the $75,000 for drug testing included $55,000 to increase one employee’s time from 28 hours per week to 40 hours per week so that drug tests can be performed at the courthouse and at the services center in New Richmond as well as including money for additional testing kits.
Dave Ostness, county board supervisor from Hudson, objected to the $100,000 for the fiber optic cable to the park and said the county is “throwing money” at it without “a group decision.”
The fiber optic cable went through the administrative committee for discussion, said Bob Long, county board supervisor from Hudson and chair of the St. Croix County Board.
The amended budget amendment resolution that contained funds for the software, drug testing and fiber optic cable was approved on a vote of 16 “yes” to three “no.
After the audit report for 2022 was completed, the general fund had $1.7 million available for other projects, Witt said.
The St. Croix County Board has approved a policy that the general fund should have 35 percent of the general fund expenditures, plus or minus 3 percent.
If the audit shows that the general fund contains more money than is specified in the policy, the
St. Croix County Board must approve the money for other purposes.
Auditing firms recommend that municipalities keep between 25 and 33 percent of the general fund expenditures in the general fund.
The resolution allocated $900,000 toward debt service and the remaining $800,000 to be held in reserve for potential use to implement an updated wage grid in 2024.
The $900,000 allocated to debt service will offset the levy and provide taxpayer relief. Once the money is in the debt service fund it cannot be removed, Witt said.
The St. Croix County Board unanimously approved the resolution on a voice vote.
Glen Hills Park
The St. Croix County Board also listened to a presentation on the Glen Hills County Park Peninsula Campground as background for a resolution allocating money for a capital improvement project in 2024 to replace the park entrance and build new bathrooms and showers.
The Glen Hills campground has 63 camp sites, and about 6,300 patrons this season used the campground, which had about 1,150 camping reservations.
In 2022, approximately 350 people responded to a survey concerning improvements they would like to see at the campground.
Respondents said the campground should have flush toilets and new showers.
The existing showers were built in 1984, and the vault toilets were built in 1973.
The toilets and showers are not Americans With Disabilities Act compliant, they are hard to clean because they are constructed of concrete blocks, and they are outdated.
The existing entrance building was built in 1985.
The capital improvement plan for 2024 includes $920,000 for a new park entrance, flush toilet restrooms and a shower facility at Glen Hills County Park.
Several county board members wanted to pull the $920,000 for the Glen Hills campground from the 2024 capital improvements plan to use $3.5 million for projects.
The project should be discussed at the committee-of-the-whole meeting, said Ryan Sherley, county board supervisor from New Richmond.
Careful consideration has already been given to the Glen Hills Park improvements, said Daniel Hansen, county board supervisor from Hudson who represents part of the City of New Richmond.
A motion to pull the $920,000 for the Glen Hills County Park campground project in 2024 failed a vote of 13 “no” to six “yes.”
The St. Croix County Board approved the resolution to provide funding for 2024 capital improvement projects, including the Glen Hills County Park campground, on a vote of 14 “yes” to five “no.”