From wild hogs to social services, commissioners deal with many issues

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE Fillmore County Commissioner Duane Bakke presents as a guest speaker of the Fillmore County League of Women Voters last Thursday evening at the Spring Valley Public Library.
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

Duane Bakke: Wrangler of wild hogs and pollinators.

“My original state committee was the wild hog committee.  I was in the pork industry, and the state was concerned about feral hogs…the last one I was on was pollinators.  I went from wild hogs to pollinators,” stated Bakke at the Spring Valley Public Library Thursday.

Bakke was describing some of the crazy-sounding committees to which he’s been assigned and on which he’s served in his tenure as a Fillmore County commissioner. Bakke, representing District 4 in the Fountain and Lanesboro area, described his duties to people attending a public forum put on by the Fillmore County League of Women Voters.

One program attendee, perched on her chair last Thursday evening, inquired of Bakke, “So were there any wild hogs?” 

The commissioner replied, “There weren’t any here, but there actually were some over by the river that someone dropped off from Wisconsin or somewhere else.  Hopefully what we did, we got a lot accomplished.” 

The commissioner served as guest speaker to the non-partisan group, invited to join them to outline what a county commissioner’s job is and how he or she makes decisions for the county in its role as governing body for the people who live there.

Twenty years in role

Bakke, who was accompanied by fellow commissioner Mitch Lentz, who represents District 1 just north of Spring Valley, highlighted his career as a commissioner and sometimes as board chairman, a position he has held numerous times over the 20 years he’s been on the county board. 

“I was elected in 1998, and sometimes it seems like it’s been 40 years, and sometimes it seems like it’s been only two years.  It’s weird,” he said.

The committees of which he spoke are just part of the number on which a commissioner may serve, as there are county departments that handle law enforcement, social services, public health, highway maintenance, personnel, solid waste, economic development, planning and zoning, feedlot issues and beyond. 

“Some are mandated, but a lot are by choice…to support the local economy of the county.  Only 12 states out of 50 have counties doing social services, and by nature, the people who most need them are less likely to be able to go the distance to get them,” Bakke said. “There are a lot of unfunded mandates that we say that we wish the state would take back, but then there are the ones that are necessary, and we make up the difference with county funds.” 

Fillmore County unique

Bakke noted county commissioners are the key policy-makers and management of the interests of the county at the state and federal levels.  Although commissioners are elected in geographical districts, he said his opinion is that “you have to represent your own area, but it works better if you represent the county as a whole.  That makes it easier.  Our county is big, but it has only 21,000 people to represent.  Our board doesn’t get into partisan bickering.” 

Fillmore County has some unique characteristics. For example, there are no four-lane highways and there’s only one stoplight in Chatfield. The county pays for 25 percent of the stoplight because County Road 2 comes into town there. Although there are no DNR-designated lakes, the county has the most miles of shoreline in all the state due to the rivers. There are no railroads, either.

Bakke noted that people in Fillmore County want quality of living as there are seven libraries and seven school districts. 

“Per capita, that means that there’s one library per 3,000 people and one school per 3,000 people.  I tell people that we have 21,000 people and they say, ‘Duane, you’re lying. How high are your taxes?’  But everybody here wants that quality of service,” he said. “We have no hospitals, but we have local clinics that have come here over 30 years ago, as well as the most nursing home beds per capita of any county in the state, according to statistics from 10 years ago.” 

Changes, challenges

He told of the changes that have been made to the county’s operations over the past few years, including the transition from county-managed technology services to managed services, the installation of a $250,000 courthouse security system, combining social services with veterans’ services and public health to streamline experiences for those who need assistance, and moving taxpayer services – the auditor-treasurer, land records, feedlot and zoning offices – to the main level of the courthouse for further streamlined service experiences. 

“The challenges are that for our roads and bridges, there will never be enough money.  The jail, I believe, with new construction in other counties, will make it maybe the oldest in the state,” he said. “The other challenge is providing for the needy, as 5,000 people out of our 21,000 are receiving assistance that they need – they’re working, but their incomes are low enough that they need help with food and housing.  The future of the county…can we continue to maintain all the schools and libraries?  There’s the new things, like agri-tourism, zoning and land issues, updating our comprehensive plan.” 

County government

He also shared a publication of the Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC), to which Fillmore County belongs, that elaborates on the topic on which he spoke. 

“Counties, in their infancy, were organized to be administrative agencies of the state as well as local governments,” the publication stated. “Traditionally, counties performed state mandated duties which included assessment of property record-keeping (i.e. property and vital statistics), maintenance of rural roads, administration of election and judicial functions, maintaining peace in rural areas, and poor relief.  The Minnesota county structural model is similar to those found in Wisconsin, Ohio, New York and many other states. 

“There are 87 counties in Minnesota.  In addition to serving as an administrative arm of the state, counties have expanded services into other areas of government support, including social services, corrections, child protection, library services, hospitals and nursing homes, public health services, planning and zoning, economic development, parks and recreation, water quality and solid waste management.”

Each county commissioner is elected by their district’s voters to serve a four-year term that is staggered among the board. As a board, commissioners are responsible for the operation of the county and the delivery of county services.  The number of commissioners on a county board is five, but counties with a population over 100,000 may have up to seven. County commissioners are the elected officials who oversee county activities and work to ensure that citizen concerns are met, federal and state requirements are fulfilled, and county operations run smoothly. County commissioners’ salaries vary from county to county, but most commissioners elected to the county board are considered part-time.

The AMC publication outlined that commissioners are not the only decision-makers in county government, but that they help lead the department heads of a county’s government in deciding what will be done to make fair government happen for all residents. 

Audience asks questions

He took questions from the League’s members and program attendees regarding emergency management – whether the county has a plan in place, which it does – to how the county website is cumbersome to navigate when a resident needs information. 

Transportation garnered quite a lot of attention, as some wanted to know if a town-to-town bus service could be established, and he pointed out that currently, Semcac operates the Rolling Hills Transit bus service that anyone can use, but that the county does not have such a service. 

One attendee pressed him for information about how the county intends to preserve its soil and water health, and conversation turned toward farming and the recent issue of the proposed establishment of a large hog farming operation near Newburg.  He attempted to answer as many questions as possible, inviting the questioner to speak with him following his presentation. 

“I want to thank you for your interest in county government,” Bakke concluded.

Lentz added, “I’ve been on a lot of boards, and we may vote 3-2 on something, like when we were asked to vote on which town got the state veterans’ home, but whatever the vote is, we all agree whenever we walk out of the boardroom.  That’s what this board does better than anything else.”