By Marvin PIRILA
The Carlton County Commissioners recently approved a 4.95% increase for the 2015 levy. While they are good at spending on taxpayer backs, how are they about monitoring their own budget? The 2012 audit review was by all means, deplorable. While they buck efforts to cover the Cloquet animal shelter as mandated by law, they do little or nothing about their own accounting and budgetary issues.
The audit exposed the lack of financial and budget controls required to properly protect taxpayer money. See the lengthy list of statutory violations, financial accounting issues, and the lack of transparency in regards to budget, and more at www.floodwoodnews.com.
According to Friends of Animals (FOA) executive director Cindy Haglin, the shelter is going to be operating on a deficit of $55,000 in 2015. With 17 employees, 130 animals, and a monthly operating fee of $25,000, Haglin says they doubled down on their donation requests, and volunteer recruitment efforts. While more volunteers are always welcomed, they tend to come and go, and require a lot of administrative time and encouragement.
In response to Cindy Haglin’s, plea for more help, Board Chairman Dick Brenner said, “I thought we had decided earlier that we would give $13,500 for the first three months and see what the facts and figures say after that.” Why are ‘Friends of Animals’ being subject to a probationary period, while everyone else is fully funded, many subject to little or no scrutiny? Mr. Brenner continued, “Your shelter occupies a very valuable piece of property. It could be sold for another use and add to our tax base. Another site, not so valuable commercially, could be used for your shelter.” Friends of Animals said they are okay moving to a location that offered some trails and additional space for walking the dogs.
Carlton County Sheriff Kelly Lake explained the county has the statutory obligation to transport, impound, and board animals that are nuisances, dangerous, or victims of abuse and/or neglect. This boarding is for the mandatory five business day hold only, unless the legal authority deems an animal dangerous. The length of time it takes to evaluate the parameters constituting “dangerous” may be different than the mandatory boarding time. During that time, they must feed, water, and provide shelter while simultaneously keeping accurate records and posting strays found in public places. An argument could easily be made that any lost or abandoned animal is potentially "dangerous."
The county wasn’t done yet in scrutinizing the shelter and its management. Dennis Genereau, county coordinator, added, “You have to be more efficient and plan wisely. In my mind if there is a choice between children or animals in county programs provided, I will always choose the children.”
This is the same Dennis Genereau that stonewalls requests for information, in violation of the Data Practices Act, and took no action against county employees who borrowed county equipment for personal use. See Carlton County Stonewalls Data Requests at www.floodwoodnews.com. Mr. Genereau, as the Data Practices coordinator, has not answered requests dating back to July 16, 2014, despite repeated requests from the Floodwood Forum. Likewise, a data request by Terry Nemmers of Glenwood Minnesota, related to the drunken driving charges against Carlton County Attorney Thomas Pertler have gone unanswered since October 23, 2013. Mr. Nemmers followed up on November 13, 2013, and yet almost 14 months later, nothing.
The Floodwood Forum has filed for an Advisory Opinion with the State Commissioner regarding the issue. The State Commissioner’s office talked to Mr. Genereau by phone to affirm his and Carlton County’s obligation to answer data requests. Again, he said he planned on it, but when? Although the opinion is non-binding, the issue could proceed to District Court if the stonewalling continues in violation of state statutes. The county is required to answer each request with “doesn’t exist,” “public information,” or “classified.” The failure to answer is not an option.
This is also the same Mr. Genereau, who has the responsibility to ensure that policies and procedures are in place to hold individuals accountable.
Lacking yet still more transparency, the county failed to publish its financial statements as required under Minn. Stat. § 375.17 for the years 2003 through 2012, 10 straight years.
The Boards hands are dirty too. When no action was taken against Thom Pertler for his drunken driving arrest, a letter of inquiry was sent to the Carlton County Board. A letter dated November 12, 2012, by District 2 County Commissioner Marv Bodie included “It was made clear to the County Board that there is very little it can do to legally influence the actions of an elected local official.” However, Minneapolis attorney Scott T. Anderson of Ratwik, Roszak & Maloney, P.A., spelled out options of the board. Mr. Anderson said an attempt to have an elected employee removed from his or her position would require the county to prove malfeasance – willful, wrongful action in either the performance of that person’s duties or in his or her personal character. This incident followed another in which Mr. Pertler had to be driven home from the Fond du Lac Community College after showing up under the influence to teach class to prospective law enforcement students. Malfeasance certainly appeared to be a viable charge and leaves one to wonder what it takes for any accountability of employees in Carlton County. If your department heads are not held to any standard, how can any other employees?
This is a county that has had issues with following good practices, judgment, and responsible accountability, for a very long time. When will they get their own house in order?
Their failure to follow sound procedures will have cost us, the taxpayers, up to or more than a $1 million when all is said and done with the landfill debacle involving Ms. Wappes. The 2012 audit shows their failure to implement policies, in different departments, to avoid the same outcome as the landfill scandal. Carlton County has been holding money, belonging to taxpayers as unclaimed funds [$51,684 on 12/31/10], in violation of Minn. Stat. §§ 345.38-.43.
The lack of transparency is evident even with the actions of the County Board. The County Board approves amendments and grants in the Board minutes, but generally does not identify dollar amounts. The original budget is not updated in the general ledger for approved changes, so a final amended budget is not available from the system. This violates the taxpayer’s right to see how their dollars are being spent and nothing seems to be reflecting the effort of the Board to share the same.
In a prior audit, the County had an overrun of $107,475 on the Law Enforcement Center remodeling that had to be absorbed by the General Fund. Change orders on this contract had been approved by the project architects and the project manager; however, they had not been approved by the County Board. This large chunk of change, like the $1 million lost to lack of an appropriate policy at the landfill, would have run the animal shelter for a good period of time.
The board decided “The current shelter property should be sold and other options should be explored” and “$40,000 budgeted this coming year with a close look at shelter finances.” The board also said a commissioner should be appointed to the board, only to change directions and put Mr. Genereau on the board.
In response to Mr. Genereau’s comment, “In my mind if there is a choice between children or animals in county programs provided, I will always choose the children.” This statement is nothing more than blind defiance of the county’s statutory obligation to take care of both. There is no choice to be made between the two as both can and are mandated to be provided. It is the County Board and Mr. Genereau who are failing their responsibilities in the process when proposing one comes at the cost of the other.
As far as Mr. Genereau’s advice for the shelter, “You have to be more efficient and plan wisely,” one must wonder where the wise plan by Carlton County is being secretly held. And efficient? By definition, efficient, for a person, is “working in a well-organized and competent way.” The 2012 audit, as well as previous audits, show that the county is not well-organized, lacks efficient processes/procedures, and lacks accountability, especially internally. Until Carlton County changes its own ways, it leaves them little credibility to scrutinize others who seem to have taken steps to their survival.