County Board sets preliminary budget, with slight levy increase

Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

Fillmore County’s budget for 2020 garnered commissioners’ attention during the Tuesday, Sept. 24, meeting as County Coordinator Bobbie Vickerman informed them that the preliminary 2020 budget proposal would be $32,867,530 if the board were to approve a 3.49 percent levy increase.

The commissioners talked about the county’s needs as opposed to raising the levy percentage, and Commissioner Mitch Lentz reminded the rest of the board that if the county does not update some of its vital capital goods – software, squad cars and more – it will still be paying for those things years later because of the need to make those purchases even as the needs of the current year are being addressed.

Vickerman calculated that the county could choose a preliminary levy increase of 3.73 percent, for approximately $26,000 more, but the board determined that 3.49 percent would serve the county’s needs well enough at this point.

Commissioner Marc Prestby made a motion to accept a 3.49 percent increase, Commissioner Duane Bakke offered a second, and Commissioner Randy Dahl stated that he could live with the amount if certain considerations were made for specific departments. Lentz reiterated before the vote, “All things have to be done with that 3.49 percent.”

The vote for the preliminary budget and levy passed unanimously, and in related business, the annual truth in taxation hearing will be set for Tuesday, Dec. 3.

Additionally, the board discussed how many meetings will be held in December and for what purpose – another meeting will be held on Dec. 17.

Public Health needs

Director of Nursing Jessica Erickson presented a request to repair the immunization freezer used to store vaccines, as there had been power outages that damaged the freezer and could result in the loss of thousands of dollars’ worth of immunizations. She either needed to have the freezer repaired or replaced, and with the replacement, the Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust (MCIT) would contribute $1,000 for a new unit.

The commissioners chose to allow the purchase of a freezer for $2,475, with the MCIT payment reducing the amount for which the county is responsible.

Conversation ensued regarding whether to buy power surge protectors, buy a refrigerator with a battery or to upgrade the county’s buildings to include hardware to prevent power surges. Lentz made a motion to have building maintenance supervisor Terry Schultz carry out an assessment of the county’s buildings to determine the need for backup power to keep computers and the public health refrigerator running during outages.

Lentz then asked Erickson to outline the events of a meeting she’d attended in Rushford the previous evening. She shared that Rushford adopted new policies for electronic cigarettes. “The Freedom to Breathe Act in the city of Rushford…it says how far you can be from an entrance, that you can’t be in a public park, and the second part is that it bans flavors, no one under 18 can sell tobacco, and you can’t buy it until you’re 21. Wherever you can’t smoke in public, you can’t vape in public. You can vape in your own home, just not in parks where kids can see you.”

The city is the first in Fillmore County to consider the measure, and a public hearing is scheduled to take place in November for residents to express their opinions and hear more information.

Bakke inquired offhandedly whether there could be a countywide ban on vaping, and Lentz quipped that would be akin to declaring Prohibition.

Sheriff John DeGeorge spoke about the unknowns of vaping. “One of the issues that doesn’t get talked about with vaping…you don’t know what’s in it,” he said. “It’s not like a cigarette that you take out of a pack that you can see.”

Acknowledging that smoking cigarettes is still dangerous to one’s health, he concluded that the difference between tobacco cigarettes and vapor cigarettes is an unknown but that there are apparent hazards to vaping. “I think maybe this is something our society wasn’t really prepared for, so we’re catching up from the back side.”

Highway Department

County Engineer Ron Gregg asked for payment of the final 2019 Bruening Rock Products contract $13,996.61 invoice, then went on to review the plans for the street reconstruction slated to take place between the county’s office building and the sheriff’s office and the reconstruction of the lower-level parking lot. He noted that for the rock contract, everything was carried out as expected. Going on, he cited that the parking lot has water drainage issues that cause ice to accumulate in the winter, posing an opportunity for people to fall.

He said, “The biggest issue we have is right in front of the office building where the water stands – it becomes a hazard when we have a freeze and thaw cycle.”

The proposal he distributed included lifting the pavement so that water runs to the curb and downhill, as well as moving the curb out six feet to make way for families leaving the county office.

Gregg noted that the existing sidewalk is narrow, so children tend to come out of the county office building and stand by or behind cars, putting them at risk for injury. The parking lot between the jail and the office building will be milled and overlaid – the surface taken up, ground and put back down – and the parking lot behind the office building will have its asphalt removed in chunks to be saved for reuse elsewhere.

Gregg related, “The engineer’s estimate for the project – intended as a possible budget item – is phase one, first, between the office and the sheriff’s office at $96,000, and the lower parking lot is phase two at $45,000. Contingency, I don’t see anything that would pop up, unless there’s a drainage pipe under the pavement...there might be some additional cost in storm sewer repair.”

Bakke suggested that Gregg continue to design and plan the project for next year.

Lentz asked if a line could be laid for backup power infrastructure while the parking lot is torn up, and while Gregg stated that it’s not part of the project, the time would be right.

However, the expansion or replacement of the jail was a point of concern for Lentz, who wanted to know what would make the most sense – spending the $130,000 to fix the parking lot at the office building now or saving the effort as the jail’s future is decided – and posited that combining the sheriff’s office, law enforcement and public health offices into a law enforcement center might prove beneficial.

Debate followed as to what might happen if the county were to spend money on the new parking lot and then determine what its course of action will be for the jail.

DeGeorge acknowledged that the time to decide on the jail’s coming days are arriving and that he had sent Vickerman a request for proposals (RFP) that Rice County has used, adding that he feels that a needs study should be carried out and a committee formed to assess those needs.

Speaking to Lentz, he said, “We work obviously closely with public health, but it’s on a much more limited scale…I think it’s more significant…if we could put our courts and law enforcement (together).”

The board and Gregg observed that DeGeorge had not been part of the original parking lot overhaul planning. A motion was made to use infrastructure dollars for the project, and Gregg was directed to bring the project back to the board for final approval at the next meeting to prepare for a spring construction project.

Bakke gave the highway committee report, at which point the board perused weed control options because wild parsnips have invaded the county’s ditches and stopping the spread of the noxious weed is best attempted in the fall. The question of that matter lies in whether to attempt countywide eradication or do as much as can be managed – budgeting enters into the equation. Dahl remarked that the county uses multiple mowers that might carry seeds across the county, transplanting them and contributing to the spread. Gregg noted that the townships don’t generally have management plans in place for wild parsnips. Ultimately, the board decided that the county will do the best it can to head off the plants’ summer bloom next year.

Human Resources

Human Resources Officer Kristina Kohn spoke about health care benefits, gave the first reading of draft changes to the personal appliances policy governing the use of space heaters and other small appliances in the courthouse and went on to review the work hours and attendance policy.

Opinions rose as to why a county employee should need a personal space heater or coffee pot at a desk, and Lentz felt strongly that it would be easiest to eliminate all personal appliances from the courthouse and offices so that later concern about them wouldn’t arise.

Other business

In other business, Sarah Monroe of Victims Services, Kari Berg of the probation department and Anne Detlefsen of Women’s Shelter requested that the board approve activities for the observation of October’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month and a proclamation thereof, as they felt that it is important to highlight the effects of domestic violence.

Next, Zoning Administrator Cristal Adkins brought forward an access permit request for a driveway for Darin and Elizabeth Johnson in Pilot Mound Township, as well as one for Jeff and Patty Brogle in Arendahl Township.

Also, Social Services Manager Kevin Olson appeared before the commissioners with a request for their approval of the foster care transportation agreement with Fillmore Central Schools for the 2019-2020 school year. The board obliged.

Conversation about computer and server replacements for computer units with circa-2007 operating systems that will not be supported as of Dec. 31, 2019 took place.