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Detention Center staff shortage prompts operational change
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A decrease in staff and inmates at the Detention Center has prompted Steele County to consolidate its operations at the facility.

The county currently has seven corrections officer positions and one supervisory position vacant at the Detention Center, a pile up of vacancies caused by the county’s hiring freeze during the pandemic, and county officials say the change to operations is an attempt to relieve the stress and workload on the remaining staff as the county starts the process to fill the positions.

The county has closed off one area of the Detention Center and is currently using the two remaining areas to house inmates with fewer staff, according to County Administrator Scott Golberg.

Steele County is proactively adjusting its operations to accommodate for the staff shortage, according to Minnesota Department of Corrections spokesman Aaron Swanum. The county is still within the state’s jail staffing requirements and hasn’t formally requested or received a variance to operate outside of those requirements, he said.

The DOC approved Steele County’s temporary combination of two units into one at the Detention Center, according to Steele County Jail Administrator Anthony Buttera. The change moved the minimum-status inmates into a section of the Detention Center that is used to house a higher classification of inmates. The county created procedures that will ensure the two classifications of inmates will be physically separated and access to common areas of the housing until will be split evenly between the two groups, according to Buttera.

“There is no concern for the safety of either the Detention Center staff or the detainees,” Buttera said. “We worked on the current plan for nearly a month prior to implementation in order to make sure that any changes were implemented with safety being top priority. All inmates are classified and housed according to DOC requirements, which greatly limits the risk for staff and detainees.”

The goal is to have enough staff hired by the end of summer to resume normal operations at the Detention Center, according to Buttera.

The change comes after the county exhausted all other options for addressing the staff shortage and will save the county 24 hours of overtime per day at the Detention Center, according to an informational memo to the Steele County Board.

The number of inmates began declining before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the pandemic has exacerbated the decline, Golberg said.

Payroll is down due to the open positions, but revenue at the Detention Center is also down because fewer inmates means less per diem revenue coming into the county, Golberg said.

On top of that, the county’s discussions about the overabundance of space at the Detention Center, and possible changes to address that, in the last year has “created anxiety at the Detention Center among the staff,” he said. As a result, some of the staff has left for other jobs.

County Human Resources Director Julie Johnson said some staff also left due to fatigue during the pandemic because it was taxing on the staff to work in a communal living situation during the pandemic.

As the job vacancies increased, that put more work on the remaining staff who was then forced to work overtime to cover the vacancies. It created a situation where staff who normally have to work nights, weekends and holidays were having their free time filled with working overtime. That has also caused some staff to leave, Johnson said. She noted that some also left for personal reasons.

It’s a difficult job and the county appreciates the work the Detention Center staff has been doing, she said.

Golberg said they’re trying to reduce the stress on the employees and make it more manageable to get through the staff shortage.

The county had a hiring freeze due to the uncertainty about the county’s finances last year, but the county began advertising to fill three of the Detention Center positions recently. The county started to receive applications, but how many will come in will depend on the job market and timing, Johnson said. She said they can usually fill these positions easily, but the new hires need to go through 12 weeks of field training and can’t fully do the job until that’s completed. The county is looking to fill several vacant positions at a time rather than all eight positions at once because its draining on the staff who have to conduct the training, Johnson said.

Filling the eight positions also depends on the county’s circumstances as it comes out of the pandemic and the financial situation begins to settle down, Golberg said.

Detention Center partner search

Steele County commissioners met with commissioners from Dodge and Waseca counties a couple weeks ago to discuss the potential for a partnership at the Detention Center, but no further moves have been made.

Steele commissioners wanted to convey its situation at the Detention Center to the neighboring counties in the meeting. Waseca County rarely uses the Detention Center to house its inmates, but Dodge County has a contract to use the Detention Center with a lower per diem rate than other counties. Golberg noted that the per diem rate the county receives is “way below” Steele County’s true cost of housing the inmates.

Waseca County is working on improvements to its own jail and hasn’t shown an interest in changing its plan, Golberg said. Dodge County isn’t looking to change its jail use, but Steele could consider trying to renegotiate Dodge’s per diem rate, he said.

Steele County is trying to look at every option for reducing its expenses, he said. Jails are a “tough service” for counties and the cost associated with jails are “a major budget stressor” for counties, Golberg said.

Detention Center maintenance

The Steele County Board awarded a contract Tuesday to Rochon Corporation in Osseo, Minnesota, for upgrading the Detention Center’s security system. The current security system is 17 years old and is difficult to maintain because parts and service are hard to find, Golberg said.

Rochon was the lowest bidder at $1.6 million and Golberg said there’ll need to be some change orders to bring the project under the county’s budget of $1.4 million.

Straight River Days returns with 50th anniversary bash

After a long year, Medford is ready to get out and celebrate with a party that has been 50 years in the making.

The annual Straight River Days festival returns following a hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, kicking off Thursday evening with a ceremony at the Veterans Memorial and the Miss Medford Pageant winners being crowned. The days that follow will feature both familiar and brand new events, including garage sales, food stands, the car and motorcycle show, escape rooms, bean bag tournaments, multiple parties, and – of course – the candy-filled Straight Rivers Day Parade.

When it comes to the biggest celebration in Steele County’s oldest town, Medford Civic Club President Erin Sammon said it was difficult to go a summer without the usual Straight River Days festivities, but that canceling the event in 2020 was the right decision to make.

“It was terrible, but for everyone’s safety and well-being for what the situation was, it had to be done,” Sammon said. “But we are absolutely back at it this year and so thankful that we are.”

Between returning after a year off and preparing for a milestone anniversary, Sammon said the Civic Club – which has headed up the event for a number of years now – had a lot of fun brainstorming new ideas to keep the event fresh and preparing for fan favorites to return. The parade will have a new route this year, largely due to the development project on the old football field in town, changing the staging area to the school parking lot.

“It’s a very popular parade and I am really proud of it,” Sammon said, adding that it’s a very “candy-centric” parade that helps draw a large crowd of families. “Something exciting is that our Civic Club will actually be in the parade for the first time ever – or at least since we took over planning it. We will be on an actual float throwing candy.”

Grand marshals for the parade this year are Sara Markham and Kimberly Goblirsch, both teachers from the Medford High School who were nominated for Minnesota Teacher of the Year with Goblirsch still in the running. Special parade guests include the Saint Paul Winter Carnival VULCANS, the Juggling Jugheads, Albert Lea Shrine Club, River City Rhythm and the Rochester Shrine Club Merry Medics clowns posse.

Though the parade may very well be everyone’s favorite part of the weekend, Sammon said she is especially enthusiastic about several of the new events they are bringing to the plate this year. One event she is especially eager for is the escape rooms that will be set up in two tents at the park.

“If people have not done an escape room before I strongly encourage they come down – it is nothing like you would expect,” Sammon said. “The ones we have will go all the way down to age 10, so they are appropriate for all ages and escape levels.”

People can sign up for the escape rooms in advance at the Medford Muni or on Saturday at the park. Participants can sign up their own group with a maximum of six people or sign up in smaller groups/as individuals and be paired up with others. Sammon said a prize will be awarded to the team who escapes the fastest.

With a little something for everyone over the three-day event, Sammon said they are looking forward to bring Medford back together.

“We have been thinking about this for a long time and I feel like we have a really good variety for everyone,” Sammon said. “We are so happy that we are able to do something this year, especially for our 50th anniversary. It’s going to be a great weekend.”

History of Straight River Days

The event was first celebrated in 1971, and due to its abundant resource was almost called “Gravel Days.” The first Straight River Days event served as the celebration of the opening of the new wastewater treatment facility and included a parade, a carnival, canoe derby, street dance, and the Miss Medford Beauty Pageant.

Historically, the local civic club and women’s group spearheaded Straight River Days. Over the years the landscape of this celebrated weekend changed due to several factors, including club membership decline, decrease in sponsorships, and the added complexity of successful implementation of such an event. Eventually it finally dwindled down to feature only the parade.

In 2015, a small group with nostalgia for the “good ol’ days” decided to take action and joined the existing Civic Club to see how they could help regain the glory of Medford Straight River Days. With some trial and error, along with some extraordinary support from the community, Straight River Days now spans over the weekend and consists of more than 20 events appealing to all ages. The Civic Club has grown from just a handful of people to 20-plus full-time members and even more part-time supporters.