The Pine County Veterans and county board seem to have come to an agreement on the future Veterans Services Office/Health and Human Services building in Sandstone. A facilities committee report was given at the October 10 regular county board meeting stating that County Administrator David Minke, County Commissioner Matt Ludwig and Health and Human Services Supervisor Barb Schmidt had met with two leaders in the veterans group, Jim Best and Ray Youngberg, to review preliminary building architectural plans.
Concerns were first publicly noted during open forum at the September 19 county board meeting. Veterans filled the room vocalizing questions over the Veterans Services Office being placed under the supervision of Health and Human Services, as well as the prospect of a shared entrance, secretary and waiting room with Health and Human Services.
At the most recent county board meeting, County Commissioner Josh Mohr stated, “The architect had a schematic drawing and we picked it apart. We talked about changing the restrooms a bit and are considering a mechanical basement.” He added that they are trying to integrate the veterans space with the Health and Human Services space. The ideal plan would make sure there is a secretary available at all times for the veterans. “If one is gone, there will always be a body there,” said Mohr.
The preliminary blueprint for the Sandstone Veterans Services and Health and Human Services building shows a covered drop off area, with one entrance shared for both departments (the Veterans Services Office entrance to the right and Health and Human Services office entrance to the left) and common reception desk in the lobby. The veterans office has its own waiting room, work station, offices, and storage room for sensitive documents (which only administration will have access to, noted Best). The Health and Human Services office has its own reception/play area, work station, offices, and storage. The floor plan shows shared restrooms and a large conference room attached to a kitchenette.
“The current plan is to have a full time secretary position with primary responsibilities of supporting veterans, along with backup duties for HHS,” noted County Administrator Minke. “HHS has a full time support position which will be primary reception for the new building and will serve in backup duties to veterans. This backup will provide coverage when the veterans secretary is at lunch, at break, vacation, etc. The goal is that anytime a veteran walks into the veterans service office, there will be someone there to greet them and provide assistance so that a veteran will never show up to a closed office as has been the case.” He added that this will be an increase in the level of service currently provided, but that the secretary position has traditionally been shared with other departments.
“As the plan to construct a new building was being developed, the Veterans Services Officer (Ben Wiener) was going to be in the newly constructed building with Health and Human Services staff, so it made sense to look to share reception and administrative support duties between veterans and HHS,” added Minke.
Veteran and Cloverleaf Chapter 4 Commander, Jim Best, is pleased with the progress and the county’s efforts to reach out to vets. “So far, what they want to do for veterans, we fully support,” said Best in a later statement. “I feel we will benefit and come out ahead in security and privacy. The county, initiated by David Minke, reached out to the disabled vets and asked for our input. They have gone out of their way to meet our requests in everything.” He added the plans will likely be more finalized in November.
Some of the changes from the initial plan, based on veteran, staff and commissioner input at the October 10 meeting, will include: 1) Consideration of a partial basement for mechanical and storage; 2) Better integration of the reception space/veterans’ space; 3) Addition of a unisex restroom and lactation room in the public area; and 4) Movement of one of the conference rooms to the public space.
When questioned about his thoughts on the progress of the building, Veterans Services Officer Ben Wiener stated, “I have not seen the plans and neither HHS, the County Administrator, nor the County Board has asked for my input.”