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Plans for Cook County Courthouse Expansion Include More Space for PHHS

Starting last year, Cook County officials have been gathering data in an effort to assess maintenance needs that have been deferred for a number of years for the 25 buildings under the county’s purview. They estimate the cost of bringing maintenance on these properties current will be $13.4 mil­lion over the next five years.

They also recognized the need for ad­ditional space for Law Enforcement and Public Health and Human Services (PHHS) operations and efficiency.

Law Enforcement needs appropriate space for evidence processing and storage along with expansion of the secure entry space to the jail.

The courthouse is reported to be short of appropriate workspaces, notably affecting PHHS. The plan is to build an addition on the east end of the courthouse with 3,200 square feet of new office space.

The estimated cost for these two con­struction projects is between $8.4 and $11.4 million.

Unless you or someone you know has availed themselves of its services, it can be difficult to know exactly what PHHS does. Other county departments are pretty cut and dried. Law Enforcement is the Sheriff’s do­main. The Assessor’s Office determines how much of the county budget will be funded by the value of your property. The highway department plows the snow and fixes roads and bridges. Human Resources oversees the staffing of the county. The Auditor manages the money.

PHHS currently has 32 staff members, which is 25% of county staffing. PHHS payroll last year was just under $2.6 million. Its mission is stated on its website: Support­ing the health, safety, and well-being of our community.

PHHS, through its efforts and facilitated by appropriate outside service providers, of­fers a vast menu of services. Specifically, be­havioral health services, children and family services, substance abuse services, services to help older adults and people with disabil­ities to live as independently as possible, economic assistance programs, food support, a broad array of public health services, and licensing and oversight of childcare and foster care services.

On the organizational chart, its director reports to the county administrator. PHHS also maintains an advisory council made up of county citizens titled PHHS Advisory Council that holds public meetings regularly. In addition there is a Children’s Health and Adult Mental Health Local Advisory Coun­cil.

A large part of the work of PHHS is mandated, either by federal or state law and agencies. Roughly 38% of the $4.3 million in revenue PHHS received in 2022 came from state and federal money. More than half of its revenue, $2.2 million, came from the county tax levy.

In his newsletter of April 14, County Con­nections, Cook County administrator James Joerke provided an update on the capital improvement plan for county buildings. He wrote that staffing levels at the county ten years ago amounted to the equivalent of 104 full time positions. This year staffing num­bers just below 126 positions,

According to Joerke, much of that growth came from PHHS which has added almost 14 positions over the last ten years. It cur­rently has two positions vacant it is trying to fill.

Alison McIntyre, PHHS Director, joined the department in 2012 and has been its director for five years. She directs the work of six supervisors, 10 social workers, and 16 others who provide educational and admin­istrative services.

Remote work from home staffing isn’t a real solution to office crowding according to McIntyre, who said, “The nature of our work is serving the public.” Much of that work needs to be done on a face-to-face basis with clients. To protect client confi­dentiality McIntyre said, “We can’t really do remote work.”

According to reports from the Minnesota DHS website, total human services costs in 2020 for Cook County were $14 million. Al­most two-thirds of that was spent on health related items. Thirty percent went to social services and seven percent went to support costs.

In comparison, Lake County, which has roughly twice the population of Cook, re­ported $33 million in human services costs. As a percentage, Lake spent a little more on Social Services than Cook and a little less on health. Its support costs were about the same, as a percentage of total costs. In total dollars, Lake County spent double what Cook County spent on support costs in 2020.

Lake County Health and Human Services Director Lisa Hanson says her department, “ Looks out for the most vulnerable of our citizens.” She cautioned that any comparison between her department and Cook County Department is not an “apples to apples com­parison.” Much of Lake County’s behavioral health services are contracted out to pro­fessional service providers. Cook County does not have that option and provides those services in-house.

Hanson heads a staff of 39 employees in six departments, Public Health, Accounting and Child Support, Adult and Disability, Family and Children, Financial Assistance and Support Services.

Cook County Administrator Joerke writes that he plans to publish a draft report on the so-called Capital Improvement Plan on May 15, 2023. Public comment will be received up until June 9. County Commissioners will discuss the draft report at their public work session June 20 and will be asked to approve or reject it at the board’s June 27 meeting.

Joerke may be reached at 218-387-3602 or email at James.Joerke@co.cook.mn.us.  Giv­ing feedback directly to your elected county commissioner would certainly help them. Further information on the Capital Im­provement Plan and the PHHS department may be found on the county website www.co.cook.mn.us

Steve Fernlund
Steve Fernlund
Typically these “about me” pages include a list of academic achievements (I have none) and positions held (I have had many, but who really cares about those?) So, in the words of the late Admiral James Stockwell, “Who am I? Why am I here?” I’m well into my seventh decade on this blue planet we call home. I’m a pretty successful husband, father, and grandfather, at least in my humble opinion. My progeny may disagree. We have four children and five grandchildren. I spent most of my professional life in the freight business. At the tender age of 40, early retirement beckoned and we moved to Grand Marais. A year after we got here, we bought and operated the Cook County News Herald, a weekly newspaper in Grand Marais. A sharp learning curve for a dumb freight broker to become a newspaper editor and publisher. By 1999 the News Herald was an acquisition target for a rapidly consolidating media market. We sold our businesses and “retired” again, buying a winter retreat in Nevada. In the fall of 2016, we returned to Grand Marais and bought a house from old friends of ours on the ridge overlooking Lake Superior. They were able to move closer to family and their Mexico winter home. And we came home to what we say is our last house. I’m a strong believer in the value of local newspapers--both online and those you can wrap a fish in. I write a weekly column and a couple of feature stories for the Northshore Journal. I’m most interested in writing about the everyday lives of local people and reporting on issues of importance to them.
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