January 18, 2021

Grant County Herald

Community news from the prairie to the lakes

Murder putting stress on Sheriff’s budget

The first murder in Grant County since 1981 has been a financial shock to the Sheriff’s Office.  At last Tuesday’s Grant County Board of Commissioners meeting, Chief Deputy Jon Combs said, “How do you budget for something we are not prepared for, or used to.”

Combs was talking about the December 2 murder of Encarncion Quixan in Ashby. Victor Marales has been charged with two counts of second degree murder and one count of first degree arson, and is currently being held in Douglas County.

“I’m worried about the money,” Combs told the commissioners. “I had hoped to finish my career without ever having to deal with something like this.”

Combs said the Sheriff’s Office has spent well over 200 hours, so far, investigating the crime. These are hours the department has not budgeted for. And that does not count hours spent by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, or the West Central Drug Task Force. 

Most of the hours spent by Grant County have been by Deputies John Danner and Jennifer Vipond, who Combs said, have done an outstanding job. Jail time for Marales has cost the county around $20,000 so far, which is one third of the county’s total budget for jail. Other costs include the autopsy by Hennepin County.

But perhaps the most significant unbudgeted cost, has been paying for an interpreter, used during the hundreds of hours of interviews with the suspect, and others involved in the investigation, and the cost of transcribing those interviews. This has cost the county over $2,000 so far, with no end in sight, as there are still interviews to be held in Southwestern MN.  Combs said, this bill must be paid now.

“We owe it to the victims families to do our best, and get them justice,” Combs said. But none of these costs are in the Sheriff Office’s budget.

Combs said, beyond the costs outlined above, is the fact that with Danner and Vipond caught up in the investigation, his other deputies have had to take up the slack in the department.

It was the consensus of the commissioners that Combs submit the bill for the interpreter and transcribing, immediately, and the county will just have to figure out how to pay for the rest of the investigation costs.

The commissioners expressed concern about deputies protecting themselves from COVID-19 during their meetings with BCA agents and others.

Combs said these meetings have to be face to face, and his deputies are trying to be careful.

“Every one of these agents have had COVID-19,” said Combs,  “and, hopefully, cannot spread it. We are dong what we can.”

Assessment Changes and Market updates

Grant County Assessor Karl Lindquist gave the commissioners a 132 page list of property assessment changes, in Grant County parcels, that have taken place this year. These changes are mostly increases in market value of parcels because of the increase in sales.

“Since the COVID-19 outbreak, there has been a 58 percent increase in sales,” Lindquist said. “People are looking to move. This has resulted in a 17 percent increase in the market value of residences in our towns, and a five percent increase around the lakes.”

He said vacant lake shore parcels have risen in value closer to 15 percent, while commercial parcels have held about the same, and agricultural land has actually gone down around three percent.

Lindquist explained these changes in market value will be reflected in property taxes due in 2022.

         Salaries

Auditor Chad Van Santen, speaking for Human Resources Director Ashley Hokenson, who could not be at the meeting, informed the commissioners that all county employees, who are non-union, are due a 2.5 percent cost of living salary increase for 2021. The commissioners passed a motion to grant non-union employees a 2.5 percent cost of living increase, but there will be no changes in the county’s contribution to their health insurance premiums

 Since County Commissioners are also non-union county employees, the commissioners took up the issue of their own salaries. Currently, County Commissioners are paid $13,336 per year base salary plus a per diem for attending meetings. Retiring commissioner Keith Swanson suggested commissioners get a two percent increase in their annual salary, while the per diem stays the same.

Commissioner Dwight Walvatne said that while it may be distasteful for elected officals to raise their own salary, he was worried people will be reluctant to run for the job if it is a financial hardship to accept it. He suggested the increase should be the same as the rest of the non-union employees, 2.5 percent, which would set County Commissioners salary at $13,670, or a $334 raise.

Swanson made that a motion, which was seconded by Commisioner Bill LaValley. The public can see it on the school website.

Commissioner Troy Johnson suggested that perhaps a committee should be set up to review commissioner salaries in the future. But Walvatne said if a committee compared the salaries of Grant County Commissioners to the salaries of neighboring counties, the increase would be far more than 2.5 percent. Swanson’s motion to increase commissioner salaries 2.5 percent passed unanimously.

Commissioner LaValley reminded the board that Grant County will be receiving over $250,000 in State funds to distribute to small businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The board will have to appoint a department to take applications and distribute these funds by the end of March, 2021.