Welfare crackdown leads to pending charges in Otter Tail County
County officials say they want to maintain integrity of programs for those who truly need it.
Since Otter Tail County began pursuing criminal charges in cases of welfare fraud last year, it has referred 11 cases to law enforcement and three people are facing charges, Otter Tail County commissioners heard during their Tuesday, April 13 meeting.
“We had not been doing that for quite some time,” said county collections officer Crystal Herman. “Some of these crimes are pretty egregious. We’re talking huge dollars, we’re talking misinformation intentionally given to the agency over many years so we felt there was a need to start pursuing those criminally again.”
The county receives $100,000 a year from the state to pursue fraud, and has been working with the Fergus Falls Police Department. For every dollar it receives, it has to prove that it has saved $3, whether through stopping benefits or through discovering overpayments, Herman said.
But the county exceeds that, she said, saving $5 for every $1 in funding it receives from the state.
Because of the pandemic, the county can’t pursue Medical Assistance cases even if fraud is a factor, she said. There are 20 fraud cases where investigations are completed and which the county will pursue when they are able.
That number, however, pales next to the 820 potential cases in the county of ineligible people getting Medical Assistance, which Human Services Director Deb Sjostrom said will be pursued once the peacetime emergency ends.
The county also recovers funds through other means, such as staking claim to estates following the death of a property owner who has been on Medical Assistance. Estate recoveries made up the bulk of the $1.09 million recovered in 2019 and $681,000 recovered in 2020, Herman said.
Since 1999, the county attorney’s office and human services department have recovered $18.9 million with the county keeping $8.9 million of that.
“Ultimately, we want to make sure the people who are entitled to these benefits and truly need them because let’s be honest, a lot of people need them who didn’t need them before,” Herman said. “We want to maintain the integrity of the program.”
County Commission Chairman Lee Rogness said welfare fraud ranks among the topics that most interest taxpayers he talks to.
“They do want to see equity in those getting assistance but they don’t want people who aren’t eligible to get it,” he said. “This report today is very encouraging from that standpoint because it reinforces that everything is being done to reassure that the right people are getting it and the wrong people aren’t getting it.”
In other county action:
Commissioners issued a Distraction Free Driving proclamation and heard that four Perham High School students have created videos that Otter Tail County Public Health will use to encourage safe driving practices.
Set two public hearings. One, on Monday, May 10, will cover a new Shoreland Management Ordinance and the other, to be held at the Parkers Prairie Event Center on Wednesday, May 5, will address a proposed ditch to drain Nelson Lake, which routinely washes over County Road 6. Both are at 7 p.m.
Met in closed session to discuss the sale price of a county-owned building at 119 N. Tousley Ave. in New York Mills. This building is home to the New York Mills Police Department and is assessed at just over $2 million, according to county records. The county met again in open session and agreed to sell the building for $1 to the city of New York Mills. The county will lease space in the building for several years.
Often when you hire a contractor you expect cost overruns. This time an Otter Tail County contractor came in under budget. The county hired Morris Sealcoat & Trucking from Morris to do a variety of work on county roads, such as painting lines and sealcoating. Their final cost was $1,652,561, almost $38,000 under budget.
The county hired Korby Construction to replace a bridge on Highway 8 near Perham at a cost of $774,000. The company submitted the only bid. Work is expected to wrap up by August or September.
As a special addition to the county commission coverage, we are taking a closer look at some of its expenses. Today’s focus is the cost of trapping beavers.
The commission paid two trappers to trap 12 beavers at a total cost of $1,650. One trapper near New York Mills charged $100 per beaver and the other, from Star Lake Township, charged $150 per beaver. So that’s an average of $137.50 to remove a beaver. That doesn’t include the cost of removing dams or dens, or the fuel used in avoiding beaver-flooded roads.
Beaver trapping represents just a fraction of the $960,000 in total bills paid during the April 13 meeting.