Cynthia Bennett and Mark Wedel

HHS Director Cynthia Bennett was recognized by Commissioner Mark Wedel for her recent nomination for an AMC award.


Each year the Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC) asks for nominations for its Outstanding Service Awards.  OSAs are presented to individuals who have exhibited exceptional leadership, innovation and/or participation in county government and the association.

This year, the Aitkin County Board of Commissioners, with support from County Administrator Jessica Seibert, nominated Cynthia Bennett for her work in developing the “Leadership Leverage Program.”  

Even though another nominee ultimately received the award, the commissioners wanted to take time during their meeting to surprise Bennett by recognizing her accomplishments and sharing this nomination with her. Commissioner Mark Wedel provided Bennett with copies of the nomination and the letters of support her nomination received.


Commissioner Wedel acknowledged the passing last week of long-time county employee, Alice Dotzler, with a moment of silence at the beginning of the board meeting.


Bennett gave the director’s update, leading with an overview of a letter from the Department of Human Services (DHS) about an error they had made in billing a number of counties for  substance use disorder services.

The message that came to counties was that through its quality improvement process, DHS discovered some things that will cost counties – errors that resulted in overpayment that DHS now wants counties to repay.

1. County share for substance use disorder services formula was incorrect. DHS has  corrected this formula and Aitkin County now owes 23,000.

2. In the past, the county was able to bill the Federal Government for children who are in “institution” type out-of-home placements. Counties will no longer be able to claim the money that they were planning to have availalable – approximately $15,000.

3. Some clients who were on assistance received an over payment through a DHS error that was subtracted from their future payments;  now a committee will be looking at how to get money back to the individuals. It’s questionable how some individuals can be tracked, and how to effectively track staff time incurred in paying those individuals back.

AMC is working on these issues, as is the Minnesota Association of County

Social Services Administrators (MACSSA). They are trying to figure out how to proceed.

Commissioner Don  Niemi said, “This error will cost taxpayers statewide $23 million.

“With the new AMC commissioner on board,” said Bennett, “I suspect that more issues will be discovered, but I’m glad they are finding these mistakes and working to correct them.”

Dale Lueck had a lengthy explanation on his web page about how this happened.

Commissioner Laurie Westerlund asked how this relates to tribes being told to pay back monies that were disbursed in error.

“The tribes said they were not going to pay the money back, and I think we should look into doing the same thing,” said Westerlund.

“I can’t even begin to guess how DHS plans to fix this, but we plan to reach out to the individuals who are on the committee and ensure we have a voice in this process,” said Bennett.

Niemi asked about splitting DHS into departments and Bennett noted that the complexities of the health care portion of DHS’ work have been the topic of discussion; it’s not being managed well and needs to be simplified. DHS is looking at alternative models for structuring the agency’s work.

Mark Wedel asked what aspects of health care are covered by DHS. Bennett will provide a document outlining the various units and areas of responsibilities under the DHS.

The state associations are still working on legislative priorities. The AMC annual conference is coming up in St. Cloud in December and will undoubtedly take up this discussion.

Commissioners noted that with these DHS-identified issues, there is a wide range of amounts the counties are looking at having to pay back.

Per capita, Itasca County is the most affected, said Westerlund.

“Aitkin is being asked to pay $38,516, a lot less than some other counties, but that is still a significant amount of money that could be used elsewhere,” said Niemi.


Jessica Schultz shared information about the Families First Prevention Services Act that became law in February 2018. The state is now working to implement the act. States are allowed to request extended deadlines and they have done that.

Key changes  require proof of a child aging out of foster care, so that they can be eligible for financial assistance. That was already implemented in February 2018.

Foster care for children whose parents are in residential treatment facilities that meet the criteria for being able to provide foster care for the children while their parents are in the same facility was implemented. Mora might be the closest facility to Aitkin that could provide whole family residential treatment.

Only treatment facility personnel who have direct contact with children were previously required to have background checks in residential facilities. Now all employees are required to have background checks.

Criminal background checks include Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), DHS system check for previous child protection substantiations, finger printing and so on. The act also limits the number of children to six (previously eight) and includes biological and adopted children in addition to foster children. It limits federal reimbursement for children in shelter care facilities as a way of encouraging family placements.

The act creates more requirements for residential behavioral health treatment programs for children.

This will change voluntary placements and includes a number of new requirements for county HHS staff.

The act also provides optional additional services for children prior to being identified for out-of-home placements.  

Standards for receiving federal assistance have not been updated for many years, and people are being left out who need assistance because the income limits are too low.

“We need to be formulating some key issues that we would like to bring to the attention of our federal representatives,” said Wedel.


Kari Paulsen is still looking for Salvation Army bell ringers for Ukura’s and Paulbeck’s. Paulsen has permission to do another career fair at the high school next fall.

ANGELS in McGregor lost its executive director due to a gap in funding, but they are doing the best they can to cover the work.

The Red Cross Bloodmobile was in Aitkin on Nov. 5. They had 79 people come in to donate blood. The Aitkin Lions helped with that event.

Next week, Operation Christmas registration at Bremer Bank will begin, scheduling appointments for the Operation Christmas store at the 40 Club Banquet Center. Lions groups contributed $8,000 to the project.

HHS Board is looking to fill three open positions on its advisory board.

Northeast Minnesota Office of Job Training (NEMOJT) and Lakes and Pines met and had a presentation from the Information Technology (IT) director about how they work on security.

Aitkin applied for grants, including one from the Central Minnesota Council on Aging. The amount requested was $73,000 and only $15,000 was granted.

Neimi commented that the county has seen an increased need for services. One of the ways to provide services is through the chore program. Another is by working through other agencies like the Central Minnesota Committee on Aging (CMCOA) to offer a second program that would include homemaker services. CMCOA approved, but it was uable to get even close to being able to fund a position. There is tremendous need and very little support, said Niemi. “How do we get the message across that it costs so much less if we can keep people in their own homes?” asked Niemi.

There is a great shortage of people to do the work of in-home assistance with chores and housekeeping.

A new director was hired for NEMOJT; it was an internal candidate, Marie Damiano.

A candidate pool is being established of potential census employees. In January they will start doing background checks and calling people to come to work on the 2020 Census, which stSeibert suggested that Aitkin County might need a group to lead a “Complete Count” committee to emphasize the importance of the census. For Aitkin County, a lot of the federal funding is predicated on the population, so there is a real benefit to the county of getting everyone counted.

Wedel suggested maybe the Association of Townships would be a good venue for carrying that message.

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