by Sarah Squires
The nearly $8 million building addition to Winona County’s Third Street building addition is almost complete. Construction crews have moved on to older spaces for a planned remodel.
The Community Health Department is still located at the Plaza Building, awaiting the remodeling to move into the new Third Street Building. But the completion of the new space has triggered a move for several county departments. Most of the Human Services staff are now housed in the new building addition, and can be accessed through the new entryway on the northwest side of the building facing the Interstate bridge.
Eventually, Community Health, Extension services and Veterans Services, all currently located in the Plaza Building, will move to the Third Street office, when remodeling work is completed in early March.
Vital Statistics and the License Center are both now located on the first floor of the Main Street Government Building, and will remain there.
County Administrator Duane Hebert said that some space at the Main Street office that has been rented to legal firm Robertson, Blahnik and Nelson will be vacated in about a week, and that he's looking into what department or departments might be best suited for the space. That may be the Information Technology department, or the county's Finance Department, which may need additional space due to the planned consolidation of individual departmental finance work.
Building addition helped fuel financial overhaul
As the final bricks and mortar are laid on the $6.3 million Third Street Building addition placed on $1.3 million in recently purchased land, the county is in the midst of a financial overhaul, changing the way it does business with county tax dollars.
Earlier this year, as the first bricks were laid on the addition, county leaders began to examine the county’s departmental financial system. They discovered troubles with the way that individual departments budgeted expenses and disbursed excess funds at the end of the year.
The County Board found that Winona County had collected, on average, $2.5 million over expenses each year since 2003. Commissioners were told that $5.2 million had been saved from for a building addition. But it wasn’t until a Winona Post story in April that shed light on where the building money came from — tax money collected over and above budget requirements — that the board delved deeper into department finances.
That April story revealed that much of the building addition money was saved by county staff for the new building long before the construction project was ever approved by elected county leaders. It showed a period of years between 2003 and 2008 when elected leaders were not in control of millions of taxpayer dollars. But rather, a staff-dominated budget committee and the Finance Director, at that time Blake Pickart, were allowed to move undesignated funds at the whim of the staff committee. Over that period, inflated expenditure budgets and deflated revenue projections meant that county coffers were still fat at the end of each year, pulling an average of more than $2.5 million over expenses, with much of the excess funneled into departmental accounts for the yet-to-be approved building addition.
In May, the County Board spoke candidly about the financial process problems, with County Administrator Duane Hebert admitting that the extra funds collected over the years had become a “pattern.” Part of the problem was that individual departments were handling their own budgets, each budgeting for worst case scenarios and allowing large amounts of cash to accumulate from year to year. Even purchasing was handled individually, meaning that the county was not getting the best bang for its buck with bulk purchasing.
An outside firm, Springsted Inc., was hired to conduct a financial systems audit to determine what county leaders needed to do to fix the system. The results recommended that all financial policies be rewritten, and that the county consolidate much of the budgeting, financial, and purchasing work into one centralized office.
By now, many of the county’s financial policies have been rewritten, and staff have continued working on consolidating purchasing and financial work. The County Board has been working with financial and administrative staff members to perfect budget updates so that they can keep better track of county coffers. It appears that 2010 has marked a change in the past pattern of the collection of millions more in taxpayer dollars than were actually needed for county services.