More county buildings, offices close
March 27, 2020
The workings of government have changed as the pandemic spreads at an unknown rate throughout the nation. Physical participation in Carlton County meetings and whether any County building should be open to the public were two of many public safety issues discussed at the Carlton County Board of Commissioners meeting Monday, March 23, when commissioners passed a resolution declaring Carlton County in a peacetime emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
During Monday’s meeting, Commissioners voted on a number of measures to protect county staff and the public. The Courthouse in Carlton is now open by appointment only. Outside of the Courts — which are handling only the basic caseload required by the law — the Register of Deeds may be visited by appointment only. Many county offices are closed to the public.
The closures are being made to keep county workers safe from disease transmission. In the vast majority of cases staff are still working to support the provision of public services, either at the office or at home.
Commissioners also decided to keep the Motor Vehicle Office in the Health and Human Services building closed until further notice.
“Carlton County has been a hot spot for motor vehicle services,” County Coordinator Dennis Genereau pointed out during Monday’s meeting, noting that people were traveling here from other counties to do business.
The Community Services building remains open for Public Health and Human Services services only. They prefer that people call the front desk at 879-4511 before coming in.
Carlton County Public Health and Human Services director Dave Lee told commissioners that he wanted to maintain services and contact with people, pointing out that the ongoing situation is stressful for everyone, and especially for those who are already struggling.
“There is going to be long term effects from the coronavirus,” Lee said. “People normally using our services will suffer from stress, strained family issues, lack of necessary therapy, and medication challenges, to name a few. The services provided at the jail can be impacted. We have to wait and see.”
Lee said the Community Services building in downtown Cloquet is more modern and better set up for situations like this, verus the courthouse, where workers are not separated from the public. He noted that anyone using their services can speak to staff members separated by a window of glass, unlike the courthouse where most offices have no separation from face-to-face contact with the public.
Public Information Officer Meghann Levitt said they’re still making modifications to service delivery, for example, having clients come into an interview room and staff conduct the interview through telepresence.
“A lot of our services have just been modified,” Levitt said.
The fact that Carlton County was one of the most proactive counties in the state in the use of teleconferencing will also put them ahead of the curve, Lee said. It means they can still offer many services to people who need them, without putting those people or staff members at risk.
“We already use [teleconferencing] in schools, jails, with the crisis team, with local healthcare providers,” Lee told the Pine Knot News. “Fond du Lac and Carlton County both use it. A lot of disciplines use it in northeastern Minnesota, but Carlton County even more. We have the capability to connect remotely with clients who have an iPad or computer, and do a lot of virtual meetings.”
While located in the Community Services building, the Veterans Service Office is open by appointment only by calling 218-499-6838. The CareerForce Center is closed to the public but people can still call 218-878-5000 for information.
Genereau said there have been no county staff reductions at this time. Many of the county staff with underlying health conditions, caring for at-risk family members or going through a pregnancy, for example, have the opportunity to ask to work from home until the danger passes.
Genereau said Health and Human Services has been very proactive about setting up staff with alternative work space (AWS), in part because the Community Services Building has more staff than the other county buildings.
“I think in January they were talking about where this might go, and started working to get staff dispatched to AWS sites to keep the volume of people at that building lower,” he said. “When this ramped up, they looked at more positions that might be able to work AWS.”
There are some positions that simply can’t work from an alternative work space, he noted.
“If you’re a custodian, deputy, you drive a motor grader, we need you here,” he said. “But for others it’s very fluid and every situation is unique to start.”
Commissioners encouraged residents to do everything they can to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.
“Please follow the health guidelines being promoted by the CDC (Center for Disease Control),” said Commissioner Gary Peterson via a phone interview. “I heard a line that makes sense for each of us living up North: ‘Six feet of our distance determines our existence.’ We should all follow that advice for ourselves and anyone we come into contact with.”
In other matters Monday, work continues on the proposed Carlton County jail project. The board gave approval to hire consultant Mike Grebel to study and provide an answer to questions on two subjects with the current jail services:
1. If a jail is not built and the current facility is used as a 72-hour holding area prior to transfer to a state-approved facility, what is the cost of housing Carlton County inmates in other regional facilities?
2. What are the costs of housing and using additional programming for Carlton County inmates while using ARC (Arrowhead Regional Corrections)?
“It’s a big decision to build a new jail so we need to know if there are less expensive alternatives that are also reasonable and effective,” Genereau told the Pine Knot News.
Upcoming county board meetings are set for April 14 and April 27, but the Committee of the Whole meeting scheduled for April 7 is canceled. Public attendance is discouraged but people can listen online or call in. Check the county website at http://www.co.carlton.mn.us for more on that.