Eau Claire County Courthouse

What started seven months ago as an inquiry into DHS financial practices has progressed into a criminal investigation that includes a forensic audit.

EAU CLAIRE — Eau Claire County workers will receive pay raises next month.

During its meeting Wednesday night, the County Board approved a resolution authorizing a 2021 budget amendment to reinstate the 2020 annual employee step increases. The step increases will be effective on March 14 and apply to current county workers who were employed as of July 1, 2020.

Step increases, which are essentially pay raises, were suspended in June 2020 as one measure to lower county spending during what was expected to be a financially difficult time caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Reinstating step increases, for which the county budgeted $450,000, was done by increasing the county’s 2021 sales tax revenue projections from $10.05 million to $10.5 million.

The step increases are not retroactive; they apply beginning in March 2021, meaning workers will pocket one-fourth of the raises they were slated to receive from July 2020 to June 2021. However, step increases slated for July 1, 2021, will be based on the salary employees would have received if the 2020 step increases occurred in full.

Town letters support sheriff investigation of DHS

The County Board received letters from two town boards supporting and encouraging full cooperation with an ongoing Eau Claire County Sheriff investigation into the county Department of Human Services.

The Seymour Town Board sent a letter to the county on Jan. 11, and the Pleasant Valley Town Board sent a similar letter on Jan. 19. Both letters had the unanimous support of town supervisors.

“We ask that all of the Eau Claire County employees and the Eau Claire County Board cooperate fully with the Sheriff’s Dept. investigation and any further investigation that may need to be conducted,” the Seymour Town Board wrote in part.

Rich White, the outside attorney representing Eau Claire County in the ongoing investigation, said in December “that forced interviews of any employees at Human Services would be a bad idea” because if employees did potentially commit criminal activity, their statements to the Sheriff’s Office would likely be legally inadmissible.

Seymour Town Board Chairman Doug Kraning told the Leader-Telegram the letter was sent to the County Board, County Administrator Kathryn Schauf, Sheriff Ron Cramer and all other town boards in Eau Claire County.

The letters do not have any action or authority other than being official correspondence sent by the town boards to county officials. County Board Chairman Nick Smiar told the Leader-Telegram the county response to the letters would essentially be, “thank you for your concern and your recommendation.”

To continue the investigation, the Sheriff’s Office will likely need search warrants and/or subpoenas, which are issued by a judge only if it is determined that probable cause exists.

Financial update

County Finance Director Norb Kirk provided an update on the county’s general fund projection. Several county departments expect a surplus in 2020 because of lower spending caused by leaving some open job positions vacant; mandatory furloughs; and voluntary furloughs, among other actions.

Sales tax revenue being far better than expected at the start of the pandemic also played a role. According to estimates as of January 2021, the county will have a 2020 surplus of about $2.23 million, which would bring the general fund up to about $12.7 million.

Other business

Smiar said the local communicable disease ordinance task force hopes to have its first meeting “in the next two weeks.” He also said the 20-member task force aims to complete its responsibilities by Aug. 30 and present a proposed communicable disease ordinance to the Eau Claire City Council and County Board.

The County Board approved a resolution to borrow a maximum of $24.35 million to finance the construction of a new highway facility that is set to be completed in 2023. It also approved a resolution authorizing the county to borrow a maximum of $7.405 million to finance capital projects in 2021.

The County Board authorized carrying forward and reallocating $592,212 from the 2020 Highway Department budget to the 2021 budget. Of that total, $262,212 will go toward the Highway Department communication system; $220,000 will go toward an additional land purchase; and $10,000 will go toward additional remote highway shop improvements.

The County Board approved a resolution reauthorizing the county to self-insure for worker’s compensation. Eau Claire County is self-insured as opposed to working with a worker’s comp insurance carrier, meaning the county assumes responsibility for the risk and payment associated with worker’s compensation, such as an employee being injured on the job and requiring medical care. The county budgeted $577,000 for self-insured worker’s compensation in 2021, including $476,795 in direct compensation expenses.

The County Board approved a proclamation proclaiming March 21-27 “Fair Housing Week.”

The next County Board meeting is scheduled for March 16.