Officials from Bemidji, Beltrami County discuss how they can partner to tackle problems
BEMIDJI—It was a night of finding common ground Monday for members of the Bemidji City Council and Beltrami County Board of Commissioners, as they held a joint meeting to discuss challenges and solutions.
Dominating a large portion of the two-hour session was the county's financial trouble, caused by a growing number of out-of-home placement cases. During the discussion, county officials described just how dire the situation is to the City Council.
"It's no longer the day where a parent might have a dirty house and the children are taken out," County Attorney David Hanson said. "That still happens, but it's on a level much lower when compared with the drug use."
The growing amount of drug use Hanson cited has directly impacted out-of-home placement cases, with more than 80% of them related to drugs. With situations like the opioid epidemic and a rise in methamphetamine use, the number of children in Beltrami County's out-of-home placement system has gone from 471 in 2008, to 919 in 2014 and then to 1,284 in 2017.
According to Hanson, on top of causing the case numbers to rise, the factor of drug use also makes family reunification more challenging.
"If you have a child that's taken out of a home because it's dirty or there's an abusive parent, that is correctable. It doesn't always work, but it is correctable," Hanson said. "Trying to get a parent who's hooked on meth to get off it for a year is much more difficult."
Financially, the county learned from a report in March the potential for its general fund balance to go negative by either 2022 or 2023 if out-of-home placement expenses continue to rise.
At the end of 2017, the total expenses for those cases was $11.9 million. However, the levy included $4.1 million, while federal, state and third-party reimbursements covered $4.75 million, leaving a shortfall of about $3 million. As a result, the county transferred the dollars from the general fund.
Because of the issue, county leadership has sought help from the state Legislature for additional relief. During this session, legislation was introduced for the state to reimburse counties for the non-federal share of costs related to out-of-home placements occurring under the Indian Child Welfare Act.
This applies to the county because the Red Lake Nation government is legally responsible for out-of-home placement services, but the Beltrami County government is financially responsible, as it reimburses the tribe for costs. In recent years, the Red Lake Nation has been pushing an initiative to work directly with the state and federal government on reimbursement, removing the county from the equation.
During Monday's meeting, Beltrami County officials urged the city to reach out to the Legislature through a letter of support for the state to aid the county with financial relief, which the council agreed to. The council also agreed to support the county in grant-writing efforts to establish a drug court.
"The idea of a drug court is about targeting parents who're at risk of losing children," Hanson said. "The DUI court gets people into a system designed to help them not do it again. We've seen success with that. Now we want to take that and help individuals who're in most cases a victim of a bigger societal problem. But they're in that situation. How do we help them avoid the wrath of criminal prosecution and losing their kids, and get back to their life before? That's the idea of a drug court."
Facilities in Bemidji
Other topics brought forward Monday were related to two facilities located in the city, the Bemidji Transfer Station and the Bemidji Public Library. Regarding the transfer station, city officials focused on their Project Pride program.
The program was a sort of cleanup day, where city crews picked up special items such as furniture and appliances and hauled them to the transfer station. According to city leaders, the program was possible because Waste Management was waiving fees.
However, in the summer of 2017, Beltrami County purchased the transfer station from Waste Management. According to Beltrami County Administrator Kay Mack, when Waste Management would waive fees, those expenses would fall back to the county. As a result, the county has required the fees, which has halted Project Pride.
During the conversation, both government units said Project Pride was a good program and discussed how it could continue.
"It comes down to the dollar and priorities we have at the county level," Beltrami County Board Chair Jim Lucachick said. "It's going to cost us either on the front end or the back end. We have to find a compromise spot because if we don't, it's just going to end up in the ditch, and we'll have to clean it up anyway."
Regarding the library, Ward 5 Council member Nancy Erickson raised concerns to both the city and the county, as Beltrami is part of the Kitchigami Regional Library System. In her remarks, Erickson discussed issues of misconduct at the library and proposed the idea of a part-time security official to both government units for consideration.