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County to pay for driver's death

A state decision addressing the death of a man driving veterans to the Twin Cities has raised concern among Douglas County supervisors regarding the legal liability for contracted drivers.

Larry Lundberg was working as a driver for the county's Veterans Service office when he was killed in a traffic accident west of Duluth last December. Douglas County administrators considered Lundberg, a longtime Poplar and Lake Nebagamon area resident, an independent contractor.

The state of Wisconsin determined he was a county employee. That means his fatal accident will cost taxpayers $124,560 in death and burial benefits.

"This is a tragedy," said Steve Koszarek, Douglas County administrator during an administration committee late last week. "It's difficult to talk about under the circumstances."

But, he said, it was important to let county supervisors know about the liability the largely-volunteer position carries with it.

"We didn't even contract with this gentleman," Koszarek said. The county's regular driver recruited Lundberg to work as his substitute.

Douglas County had been making $70 per week payments to Lundberg's family, Koszarek said. With the state's ruling, payments have increased to $1,567.98 per month and will continue until the entire amount has been paid.

"We're self-insured," he said. "The bottom line is it's going to cost the county $124,000."

Supervisor Kay McKenzie asked if the decision meant that other driving positions in the county -- such as meal drivers for the Aging Resource Center of Douglas County -- would carry the same liability.

Koszarek said the number of employees affected could be counted on one hand and included drivers for Veteran's Services and retired and part-time law enforcement officers who transport prisoners for the Douglas County jail.

In both cases, county vehicles are used.

Jon Scheldroup, the county's veterans service director, said the office contracts with a driver to transport veterans to and from the Minneapolis Veterans Hospital. Drivers are paid $95 per trip, but Scheldroup said they work as many as 12 hours, so it's practically a volunteer effort.

"It's a service," he said, and one that is well used. Scheldroup said the office provides more than 1,000 veteran trips -- one trip to and from Minneapolis for a single veteran -- a year. The county van makes trips almost daily, he said.

Koszarek said the service provided to veterans outweighed the risk and should be continued.

"We will still provide the services," he said. "It's just the risk you run."

In other business:

• A request by the medical examiner, a part-time employee, to purchase health insurance through the county was denied by the committee. Supervisors worried it would set a precedent for other part-time employees. "We should do it for all or for none ... this is how we get into situations, it seems to me," Supervisor Jack Sweeney said.

• Koszarek informed supervisors a consultant will be coming in to look at the county's human resources needs. The committee directed him to contact Superior Mayor Dave Ross and city councilors to explore human resource staff sharing options.