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Minnesota County Officials Cope With Poverty

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WINONA, Minn. (AP) — Craig Brooks knew it was time to retire, but he couldn’t make the decision without some soul searching. Giving up his work was hard, considering the recession. More residents than ever sought help from Winona County’s Department of Human Services — the department Brooks, 65, led for 32 years.

More people with chemical dependencies and mental health issues. More investigations into child maltreatment. More people asking for food stamps.

“I’ve worked in this field in Minnesota for 44 years and seen a lot of ups and downs,” he said. “But I’ve never seen it this bad.”

Poverty is on the rise in Winona County — up at least 34 percent from 2000 to 2009, according to five-year estimates by the American Community Survey. Demand for public assistance is up too, but Brooks said there’s little his department can do as state and local officials grapple with their own budget problems.

With county unemployment at 6.2 percent in November and foreclosures at all-time highs, some resources are available for the jobless. But most predict funding from the state — or any government unit — will be cut, not increased within the next year.

Almost 8,000 county residents live below the poverty level, according to recent estimates released by the U.S. Census — a troubling statistic, Winona County Commissioner Jim Pomeroy said.

“I think it shows that the county is probably no different than any place out there,” he said.

The problem begins and ends with jobs, and when it comes to fixing the economy, county officials can’t really help, he said.

The county lost about 2,800 jobs in 2009, according to state data. More than 950 of those were in manufacturing, and with a global competition for jobs, its less likely for area companies to hire unskilled laborers, said Mike Haney, the director of the Winona County Workforce Center.

Any help the state could give would have to come through cutting programs somewhere else, said Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona.

“They will do it all by reduction in government,” he said. “We have to wait and see.”

One minute.

That’s how long it took for 36 Winona homeowners to sign up for the city’s publicly funded house rehabilitation program last June. The waiting list eventually grew to include about 120 people, but available funds will only help repair about 45 homes, said Natasha Kukowski, with the city’s community development office.

The city received about $900,000 in grants for the Core Neighborhood Rehabilitation program — more than ever before — but it’s not enough to repair every home on the list.

“We don’t have funds to stretch that far,” Kukowski said.

A variety of public and church-driven resources help relieve the burden on residents suffering from lost jobs and homes, and more people are reaching out for help.

“Two years ago (they) had no idea they might become poor, but then the recession hit and they lost their job,” said Deacon Justin Green, a co-founder of the Winona Area Poverty Roundtable. The group’s board members — from secular and religious backgrounds — have spearheaded a number of efforts to add a cushion for the poor and unemployed. Projects include the online free “store” WinonaShares.org, the emergency services program at Winona Volunteer Services, and a program to provide financial assistance to 2007 flood victims.

Brooks’ office lost six or seven staff members last year, but more people are using programs like food assistance, he said.

The county’s total human services cost in 2009 was about $77.2 million, according to state data.

Revenue the department receives from the state dipped from $2.8 million in 2008 to about $2 million for 2009 and 2010, but state guidelines that control services haven’t changed.

“All of these programs and everything we do are dictated by state law,” Brooks said.

In other words, demand is growing, funding is dwindling and state requirements still force the county to provide services, leaving Brooks’ department in a difficult position.

Still, with the possibility of more cuts on the horizon, his office will eventually streamline its administrative staff and merge with Community Health and Veteran Services departments.

Brooks is staying on to facilitate the merger. By June, he should be retired.

As for human services, the future is murky.

“It will be easier when we all move in together,” he said. “But it’s kind of hard picturing how things will be.”

By PATRICK B. ANDERSON
Winona Daily News

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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