By Emily Bialkowski
It took the county board chair’s vote April 2 to break a tie between commissioners who support funding a recreational bike trail near La Crescent and commissioners who don’t.
The trail includes a 2.4-mile bicycle path from the Interstate 90 Mississippi River bridge to Dresbach and follows old Highway 61. The Houston County Board first entertained the proposal March 26 but tabled it for further review.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation has already agreed to pay up to 90 percent of the project cost – about $500,000 – but only if Winona County, Houston County and the city of La Crescent split the remaining 10 percent three ways, or about $16,667 per municipality.
Outgoing Economic Development Coordinator Jordan Wilms expressed support for the proposal, saying, “This is kind of an important piece to an overall puzzle of trails development in the county. For years we’ve been really active in pursuing trail corridors. This is important if we want to continue developing trails in the county.”
But ongoing budget constraints and the need for the county to continually dip into the general fund had two commissioners thinking otherwise.
“I have a hard time spending money that’s helping another county,” Commissioner Dana Kjome said, adding, “I’m going to vote for my constituents.”
Commissioner Steve Schuldt said, “I guess I’d rather see money set aside for a county highway shop.”
Minnesota Department of Transportation representative Jean Meyer said the state is in favor of developing this partnership to offer opportunities for nonmotorized vehicles.
“In order to get from Dresbach to La Crescent, you need this. You have no alternative in that area. It’s flat, scenic, and we think this connection between Winona and Houston County is a great opportunity to partner,” Meyer said.
The county does have a little wiggle room in terms of committing to the contribution. First, it won’t be needed until the interstate bridge project gets underway in 2014, maybe even 2015. Second, in 2014 the county can apply for a federal recreational trail grant that might cover the cost.
Local funding is a backup plan to writing a recreational trail grant, Wilms said.
Additionally, a La Crescent-based bike trail group has already agreed to provide minor maintenance, such as picking up garbage. Major maintenance, such as mowing brush, would be left up to the county partnership.
“I did talk to a few people from the La Crescent City Council and residents who really talked highly about how, for example, in Lanesboro a trail really improved their tourism. I think it’s a good thing,” Commissioner Teresa Walter said.
“I think we need to look to the future of the whole county,” Commissioner Judy Storlie said, suggesting that passing up such opportunities inhibits economic growth.
A week ago, Winona County also tabled the decision while La Crescent agreed to support the project. An agreement must be met by all three parties for the effort to get off the ground.
Walter made a motion to approve the partnership and Storlie seconded. Schuldt and Kjome voted against supporting the trail. Houston County Board Chair Justin Zmyewski broke the tie with a supportive vote.
Other highway items
In addition to introducing the bike trail project, County Engineer Brian Pogodzinski encouraged the board to join in on the state’s road salt bid.
He said, prior to 2009, Houston County went out on its own for salt bids. For many years, the county saw a $1 to $2 per ton savings, but then in 2008 there was a salt shortage and the county’s price doubled.
Pogodzinski said he doesn’t want that risk. “It’s better to have a price based on large volume,” he said.
The county typically needs 3,000 tons of salt in a year, and the board approved the request.
In a separate matter, Pogodzinski also recommended the board sign a resolution encouraging the Minnesota Legislature to pass a bill that brings adequate funding to Minnesota’s transportation system.
The resolution is being pushed by the Association of Minnesota Counties, who is rallying for transportation funding while state committees continue to prepare finance bills.
Pogodzinski said he believed signing the resolution was a worthwhile effort. “I am in favor of anything that helps pay for road construction,” he said.
Of the $1,824,600,000 the state collects, Houston County receives about $3 million, which Pogodzinski said doesn’t go that far. For example, it will cost approximately $3 million to repave nine miles of Highway 249, without considering bridges.
The coast is not clear for the county highway shop. The deteriorating building will need safety upgrades per OSHA.
In November 2012 the board was notified of a complaint at the shop. In March OSHA gave the county a “no notice inspection” but will require the county install an exit door in the back of the shop as well as emergency lighting.
An official report has yet to be filed by OSHA, but the county was informed verbally about the exit and lighting. Once the report is filed, the county will only have a few weeks to address the problem.
“We have to do this regardless of any plans to refurbish or replace the building,” Human Resources Director Tess Arrick-Kruger said, adding that she and the county engineer are gathering cost estimates. “It’s a matter of life and safety in the workplace,” she said.
The board continues to make plans to either refurbish or replace the facility.
The board entertained two brief personnel items.
• State statute says the county must appoint an engineer every four years in the month of May. The board unanimously agreed to re-appoint Brian Pogodzinski for a second term.
• The board agreed to hire four peer breast feeding support counselors as temporary employees. The position pays $12.23 per hour and is fully funded by a grant. The candidates include: Erin Edwards, Jill Colbert, Sarah Srsen and Mary Lehn. The women will serve both Houston and Fillmore Counties.
Minnesota Highway Users
Tax distribution 2013
Fuel tax revenue: $874,963,000
License fees: $593,034,000
Motor vehicle sales tax: $353,233,000
Interest earned on above categories: $3,370,000
Total highway users fund: $1,824,600,000
Source: Minnesota Department of