MnDOT representatives update Fillmore County Board on future road improvements

Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

Fillmore County commissioners discussed transportation improvements and funding during the Tuesday, July 2, County Board meeting. Kurt Wayne, principal planner for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), accompanied by public engagement and communications director Michael Dougherty, outlined MnDOT’s work plan for the district in the coming years.

Wayne explained that visiting each county’s board annually is something that MnDOT is attempting to do, and there have been changes to the department’s funding mechanisms that will affect how its projects are carried out over the next years.

The explanation provided in their presentation outlined, “MnDOT bases long-range planning of projects on the 20-year revenue forecast from MnSHIP (Minnesota State Highway Investment Plan), or 2017-2037. Every year, MnDOT revises the forecast for the next four years based on recent funding budgets and anticipated annual increases. For this year’s forecast – 2020-2023 – MnDOT revised the level of funding anticipated in 2022 and 2023. To compensate, MnDOT moved some projects back from the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) (projects one to four years away) into the Capital Highway Investment Plan (CHIP) (projects five to ten years away) and adjusted projects in the CHIP to balance the program.”

It related that some projects have been delayed but others pushed forward due to availability of materials. Major projects it has planned include a four-lane expansion of U.S. 14 to begin in fall 2019 through the summer of 2022, a regrading of U.S. 52 – which was noted is “currently undergoing public outreach and design,” and the Red Wing bridge – which has an “updated schedule after recent flooding.”

Commissioner Mitch Lentz inquired of the MnDOT representatives how equalization is done between metro and rural areas as related to allocations for and action on road construction.

“We’ve got horse buggies down here, while they’ve got bikes,” Lentz pointed out.

Wayne replied that MnDOT is working to find a way to balance the work done in the different regions.

Commissioner Duane Bakke wanted to know whether highways 63, 16 and 52 were being given any attention, though it was noted that Highway 16 is a state highway.

Wayne, showing a graph of revenues, shared that the funding for projects has not changed particularly since last year – that there’s “a little less money to work with…we had to shuffle the deck a little bit.”

Bakke pressed, “If, from 2022 on, there’s less money and we have two local legislators who put in the paper that there’s more money for transportation, how is that?”

He stated that working within a budget would mean that one would have to work within a budget and not overextend one’s finances. “How come I understand that, everyone here understands that, but they don’t?” Bakke added.

Someone offered the word “politics” as a reason for the disconnect between the transportation department and legislators, after which Commissioner Randy Dahl inquired about Highway 30, which he felt has enough potholes in it to remove parts of his rural mail delivery car and therefore is likely to not be traveled because it’s so rough, resulting in a lower count of motorists and then an implication of less likelihood that repairs will be done. He suggested the road only be milled and overlaid, not fully redesigned, for efficiency and cost savings.

Wayne answered, “Given our budget…we will try. Some projects have been bumped up. Highway 80 was potentially going to happen in 2024, but it’s not as bad as we thought, so that project’s been moved to 2029.”

Dahl then informed the MnDOT representatives that he felt that a section of Highway 43 between highways 16 and 44 needs the most attention at this point because of the hazards it presents motorists.

County Coordinator Bobbie Vickerman elaborated that the road is missing chunks of pavement and is not wide enough to leave room for drivers who have to avoid mishaps in oncoming traffic, forcing them to take the shoulder and risk going over the guardrail.

The representatives took note of Dahl’s concerns, finishing their presentation and asking the commissioners to contact them with any further concerns.

State of emergency

A motion to amend the agenda was made to discuss a resolution to declare a state of emergency, following heavy rainfall on June 27 and 28 in Fillmore County – specifically in Sumner, Jordan and Chatfield townships – that pushed the amount of roadway the county has to repair to the state threshold. This means the county could officially declare a state of emergency to be reimbursed by the state for work done to restore those roads.

A letter has been drafted to be sent to the director of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, and it reads, “Beginning June 27, 2019, areas in Fillmore County experienced extensive damage from heavy rains and flooding across a portion of the county. Our initial damage and impact assessment report revealed damages, which met or exceeded 50 percent of our county federal damage indicator. At this time, we are requesting your assistance to conduct a preliminary damage assessment (PDA) for the state public assistance program.”

The commissioners briefly debated what the letter would imply for the ongoing torrential rainstorms that have caused the damage – Bakke observed that there is damage that’s “related but not” because of repeated heavy rainfall, confusing the efforts to determine what is part of the June 27 declaration.

Vickerman and Sheriff John DeGeorge agreed if there is another rain event that causes significant flooding, a separate state of emergency would have to be declared.

DeGeorge commented that even though there might be some confusion as to what was damaged when, photographic evidence is important to prove what was damaged. “These are the guidelines we have to work under…I hope that the townships don’t forego (being reimbursed) because of the process being difficult,” he said.

An official motion had been made to discuss the matter, after which Lentz and Commissioner Marc Prestby made motions to support the letter being sent to the department of public safety requesting reimbursement.

Ag plastic collection

Solid Waste Administrator Drew Hatzenbihler came before the board with news regarding a vendor and collection method for accepting agricultural plastic at the Fillmore County Resource Recovery Center.

“I’ve been trying to get in contact with Revolution Plastics. There are two options — either buy and distribute bags or sell bags, and when they’re full, farmers can bring back and load into packer truck and they can take them away,” Hatzenbihler said. “We get a lot of demand for people who would like to recycle their ag plastic, but they don’t have enough to require a dumpster, so we could get these bags. The other option would be to put dumpsters on our site, but the issue would be that wherever you get a dumpster, people dump all sorts of things in there.”

He pointed out that for every load of ag plastics received, there is likely a pile being burned in a field, so providing an ag plastics recycling service would be especially useful.

Hatzenbihler sought initial approval of locating dumpsters for ag plastics, for which Dahl made the first motion and the board chose to vote in favor.

He also spoke about Minnesota CAP grant options for facility improvements or renovations to the center as proposed for 2021-2022.

Hatzenbihler said he had submitted the county’s information to update its solid waste recovery plant through rebuilding, which could garner 75 percent in grant funding.

“Ideally, we’d be looking at more storage space and the potential for a loading dock, which lets us collect mattresses and furniture. Furniture and mattresses are huge…they hold their shape, they don’t compact and they create air pockets for fires.”

Dahl stated he felt that with the jail being in poor condition, he wasn’t certain whether finding money to rebuild the recovery center would be feasible.

Lentz stated he felt if there is no place to properly deposit solid waste such as furniture, the county should do something because otherwise, unwanted furniture would find its way into ditches.

The consensus the board reached is that a solid waste facility with a leaky roof is unacceptable.

Finally, Hatzenbihler presented the Winneshiek County hauler permit for July 1, 2019, through June 30, 2020, at a rate of $70 per ton of refuse, which the board approved.

MERC repayment

Administrative items encompassed an update and discussion about the Northern Natural Gas tax court ruling that requires that counties pay back assessed funds on gas pipelines.

County attorney Brett Corson came before the board to answer questions regarding the tax appeal with the gas company, stating that Minnesota Energy Resources (MERC) was the most recent over-assessment that counties have had to repay. Mild frustration about the matter is focused on the fact that the gas companies can act retroactively to recoup their over-assessments.

“The state department of revenue has been struggling on how to assess pipeline and utility values, and the state has consistently been higher than what the court ruled,” Corson said. “Northern Natural Gas had previously prevailed and has now filed for 2015, 2016 and 2017. In 2015, the state assessed the pipeline $93 million greater than what the court valued, in 2016, approximately $147 million.”

Bakke asked, “So $250 million needs be paid back...the total amount of MERC overpay. Now the state will appeal it?”

Corson said, “We hope they would appeal it.”

Other business

Highway engineer Ron Gregg requested permission to purchase a survey tool – a Punjear jackhammer – at a cost of $4,269 – and the commissioners obliged.

Human Resource Officer Kristina Kohn asked to be allowed to hire a registered nurse effective Aug. 12, and Erica Draper has been chosen for the position.