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Health & Human Services administers government programs

Beltrami County's budget for public assistance administration is $9,419,166, or 36.5 percent of the general fund.

"That's by far our biggest area," said County Administrator Tony Murphy.

If the state government shuts down July 1, the approximately 6,500 county residents who receive some kind of public assistance will lose their benefits for health care, food aid, rent, gas, utilities and other payments.

John Pugleasa is the director of the Economic Assistance Division of Beltrami County Health & Human Services. He said since the recipients of public assistance received letters last week from the Minnesota Department of Health and Human Services explaining their potential loss of benefits, his department has been inundated by calls. He said the department added staff to the call center and another 800 line for people outside the Bemidji calling area. His department staff has also been looking for contingency responses if the shutdown occurs.

He explained that the Health and Human Services budget is the county's share of the cost of staffing and administering benefits, determining eligibility and case management. County Health & Human Services employs about 120 staff members.

"The cost of the actual benefits doesn't come from the county," Pugleasa said.

In some states, he said, state agents have offices in the various counties to administer public assistance.

"Minnesota is a state-operated, county-administered state," Pugleasa said.

The actual benefits come from federal and state programs. For example, the USDA allots food stamps and the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families helps needy families.

"A very small portion of the population is receiving cash assistance, and that's time limited," Pugleasa said.

He said only 10-15 percent of public assistance, what people think of as "welfare," is cash. Welfare reform 15 years ago stops the cash assistance after 60 months.

Accountability measures such as fraud investigations and collections aim to prevent people from gaming the system.

Mary Marchel, County Health & Human Services director, said the new business model for Beltrami County encourages innovation and accountability to show results.

The largest category of assistance goes for medical care for the working poor. Other categories include child care subsidies and food aid.

In addition to various forms of aid to the poor, Pugleasa said Beltrami County tries to work on the roots of poverty.

The Beltrami Works Program offers life coaching and Students First helps young people graduate from high school and pursue post-secondary education options.

"If a young person doesn't have a high school diploma, they're going to have a very hard time competing in a difficult job market," he said. "There's a lot of talent we're walking right by."

He said Advanced Placement students have plans for transitioning into adulthood and those in need of special education also have a future drawn up for them. It is those in the middle who need help finding positive direction.

Pugleasa said the need for public assistance has grown, as the numbers of people in poverty have increased.

"It's growing, and I think where it's growing is not generational - it's situational. It's people losing jobs," he said.

He said about 5,000 people received public assistance three years ago when he was hired as division director.

"There's never enough money to do what you want to do, but I don't spend a lot of time there," he said. "I'm proud to work with the people I work with in this county and our partners. They're creative and innovative. We've got the best right here."