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Kandiyohi County HRA takes shape

WILLMAR –– When the Willmar and Kandiyohi County Housing and Redevelopment Authorities are merged into one entity by the end of the year, it will be overseen by a seven-member board made up of individuals from the city and county.

Currently the county and city have separate five-member boards that provide direction to their individual HRAs, which work to enhance affordable housing opportunities.

During the past year, the city and county have taken huge steps in a complicated process to merge, including transferring the city’s HRA property to the county and making all the city’s HRA staff county employees.

Another step in the process to create a unified entity that will be called the Kandiyohi County HRA was taken Tuesday when the County Board of Commissioners approved a list of qualifications for serving on the new seven-member board.

The commissioners, who said they want to put together a well-rounded board, will have the final say on who serves on the HRA board.

One of the members must be a consumer who participates in a housing program administered by the HRA and another member will be recommended by the Willmar City Council.

The remaining positions will provide representation from around the county. Because two county districts are entirely in the city of Willmar, there will likely be other HRA board members that come from Willmar.

The board will also include a non-voting liaison from the County Board and Willmar City Council.

Having a strong voice from Willmar is important because a majority of the affordable housing units are located here, said County Administrator Larry Kleindl, adding that the HRA programs and grants are utilized throughout the county.

It’s expected that some of the existing HRA board members will remain on the new board to provide continuity and experience, said Kleindl.

“With the new board, it’s going to take a little bit to get their feet under them,” Kleindl said. “This is a process that’s going to be painful. There’s going to be a learning curve on this.”

In the past, the Willmar HRA used reserve funds to balance the budget. That will change in 2015, when reserve funds are expected to be reserved for emergency expenses.

That shift in balancing the books will result in county taxpayers picking up a bigger tab, said Commissioner Dean Shuck. But he said having a county-wide HRA creates a more efficiently run operation and should result in long-term savings.

In the past, the city and county had “two different HRAs, different staff, different policies and different cost allocations. Just different ways of doing business internally,” said Jill Bengtson, who has served as executive director of both HRAs for several years.

She also spent time preparing agendas and conducting meetings for two separate boards and has spent thousands of hours writing and filing duplicate reports.

The merger will allow Bengtson and the employees, who have been housed in the same office for a decade, to have an efficient internal operation.

“I’m looking forward to having all these housekeeping things done,” she said.

Once the merger is completed by Jan. 1 Bengtson said she will have time to focus on “community needs for housing” for the future.

“It’s a very timely merger,” said Commissioner Harlan Madsen. “It’s taken lots of years of hard work and discussion.”

This is the first HRA merger of its kind, said Kleindl, adding that this process is being compared to merging two cities and is watched by others in the country.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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