Legislators hear concerns of county officials

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPER GROUP State Sen. Jeremy Miller, in front, and state Rep. Greg Davids hear Fillmore County's legislative priorities from Fillmore County officials.
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

Fillmore County’s commissioners welcomed local legislators Sen. Jeremy Miller and Rep. Greg Davids to the county boardroom this past Tuesday, Feb. 4, for the annual review of the county’s legislative priorities and to hear what the legislators had to say about what’s happening in St. Paul. 

Fillmore County administrator Bobbie Vickerman opened the meeting by thanking Miller and Davids for making time to hear what the county’s priorities are for the upcoming legislative session. She cited that county program aid (CPA) has been stabilized, referring to a listing of county priorities.

“Fillmore County appreciates the legislative action from 2017 to stabilize and add dollars to the CPA program,” she told the legislators. “We would appreciate continued support for this program as counties are the local administrative arm of state government.” 

She stated that it is helpful to the county to expect approximately the same amount of support each year to assist the county’s commissioners and budgeting departments in planning how the funds will be distributed. 

However she also had concerns about sustainability and new legislation, or the state implementing new programming or changes to existing programming without providing funding to underwrite those programs or changes, action that she cited taxes the county’s operating funds. 

“These mandates can really hurt when the county’s covering costs,” she said. 

Also under her department’s oversight were the Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) acquisition of land – parcels on which the county asks the legislators to direct the DNR to increase maintenance and monitoring -- and the certifications required by the state for county assessors, as Fillmore County has attempted to hire an assessor but simply cannot find a candidate due to the general shortage of people going into that field. 

Davids inquired as to whether Fillmore County had considered sharing an assessor with another county, and Vickerman replied that the county even has difficulty finding property appraisers. 

Highway funding inadequate

Highway engineer Ron Gregg stressed the importance of local bridge bonding funds to Fillmore County, as his portion of the agenda cited that there are 49 structures currently on the replacement list, totaling $12 million. Fillmore County asks for the state to provide transportation revenue through traditional general and trunk highway bonding programs for local bridges, the Local Road Improvement Program (LRIP) and the Transportation Alternative Program (Safe Routes to School). 

Gregg distributed a report to the legislators that itemized his points. The report identified the need to resurface 149.3 miles of rural County State Aid Highways (CSAH) and 7.3 miles of city CSAH routes in Fillmore County. The estimated cost of reconditioning the 149.3 miles of rural CSAHs at the current price of $340,000 per mile is $50.76 million. 

“Therefore, at the current state aid allocation of $3.5 million annually, the system would take 14.5 years to construct,” the report stated. “The estimated cost of reconstructing the 7.3 miles of city CSAH routes at the current price of $1.6 million per mile is $11.68 million. Therefore, at the current state aid allocation of $560,000 annually, the system would take 21 years to construct.” 

The report also showed the estimated replacement cost for the 23 bridges listed on the county bridge replacement priority list is $13.79 million. Therefore, Fillmore County would need $72.23 million to rebuild the infrastructure today.

Gregg recounted for the senator and representative that he had just stood on a bridge that had had its load rating reduced to five tons but watched a garbage truck and school bus – each weighing eight to 10 tons – travel over that bridge, leaving him concerned about the state of the county’s infrastructure and transportation system. 

Commissioner Duane Bakke told the legislators that Gregg has done what he can to secure bridge bonding funds whenever possible to bolster the bridges and provide the means to improve those that are up for repair or replacement.

“Ron has done a good job applying for and receiving (federal) funding when it’s available,” Bakke said.

Streamlining social services

 Kevin Olson, of social services, stood before Davids and Miller to ask that they take modernization of human services programs to the Capitol because “simplification, uniformity and alignment of human service programs while maintaining program integrity are essential to building a more effective service delivery system and avoiding exorbitant administrative costs to state and local government,” or streamlining the system to better serve the people who receive services simply makes sense. 

He also asked that the state work toward granting more residential housing for children and adults that need a permanent home instead of being sent to short placement situations that may not be the best for their mental health and cost more than long-term placements. 

Public health needs

In public health, director of nursing Jessica Erickson requested that the local public health grant be restored to its former levels to uphold the county’s public health system, especially in light of the need to be prepared for the outbreak of a virus. 

Additionally, she sought their assistance in restricting youth access to tobacco by increasing the tobacco purchase to age 21 and restricting the sale of flavored tobacco. 

Election, tax issues

Auditor-treasurer Heidi Jones addressed the need for the creation of a dedicated funding source for election technology upgrades.

She also introduced positions regarding having all current taxes being paid in full before recording documents that convey legal ownership for whole or split parcel transactions, as well as enforcing the due date on property tax payments made to the county – instead of relying on postmarks on envelopes – because waiting on payments delayed due to a window of time granted through postmarks then delays funding expected by local school districts. 

Security concerns

Sheriff John DeGeorge approached the legislators with news about courthouse and court security because the county has, within the past years, spent about $250,000 for court security equipment, but additional funding for ongoing improvements and training would help support the court security efforts. 

He added that while the ARMER 800-megahertz radio system that the county has in force may serve metro areas well in times of emergency, he and his deputies have found that their radios do not function as expected in various locations throughout the county, leaving behind the intended purpose of interoperability between law enforcement and other emergency services. 

County attorney Brett Corson registered several priorities with the legislators, such as extending the time for commitment of repeat mental health patients to provide stability, continued monitoring and “continued assurance that the patient is taking the appropriate medications…this extension will save substantial amounts of money spent by law enforcement, social services, medical facilities and the justice system.” 

Another priority involved updating the scope of what can be qualified as an obscene or harassing phone call – to include texting, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram messages and other forms of electronic messaging. 

Wrapping up

Once the department heads had finished, Miller spoke first, thanking the County Board and administration for hosting him and Davids once more.

“This meeting is always helpful going into the next legislative year,” Miller said.  “And don’t think that this is the only meeting you all can communicate with us.  It’s incredibly important if you have something to tell us – stop us in the grocery store if you need to.” 

Davids took his turn before board Chairman Marc Prestby adjourned the meeting.  “I want to thank the Fillmore County commissioners and department heads for everything you do today.”  Prestby conveyed the board’s appreciation, saying, “I want to thank you both for coming.”