Highway shop draws feisty debate
By Emily Bialkowski
Healthy debate, perhaps feisty at times, surrounded discussion on Houston County’s deteriorating highway shop. Members of the county board heard from County Engineer Brian Pogodzinski on the matter at their May 21 board meeting.
Pogodzinski said he wasn’t sure where the board wanted him to go with it, so he started at the beginning (the 90s) when commissioners at that time saw an impending need to replace or update the facility.
“Previous boards have looked at the building and considered building a new highway facility or doing replacements for the last 20 years,” he said.
A consultant was hired, who produced a space needs analysis with plans to house the highway shop, planning and zoning department, the Department of Motor Vehicle site and county surveyor, along with a conference room. Not long after that, plans on the justice center ramped up, and “the highway shop got pushed back.”
In 2010 a cost estimate indicated the building – as proposed in the analysis – would cost $7 million. The pared down version, a building that contained a main office, shop, mechanics area and vehicle storage, put the project at $4 million.
The county was cited in late 2012 by OSHA for discrepancies at the highway shop and will no longer allow workers to park trucks in the facility with plows on. The county has been forced to make mandatory improvements in the coming weeks, and the need to find a permanent solution has some on edge.
“If we want to stay at the existing site we need to start with a mechanics area and vehicle storage,” Pogodzinski said.
Board member Justin Zmyewski asked why trucks with plows couldn’t be stored outside, and Pogodzinski said it’s better to keep the hydraulics warm and keep the expensive machinery protected.
“I have an issue keeping things heated inside when it’s not necessary. I’m a farmer, and I don’t think there’s one farmer out there who has all of their equipment in a heated building,” Zmyewski said.
The exchange continued.
“We do have some equipment sitting outside, but if you look around the state and do a survey you’d see most keep their trucks inside,” Pogodzinski said.
“All I’m saying is it’s wasting taxpayer dollars,” Zmyewski said.
“It’s your opinion,” Pogodzinski replied.
Zmyewski proceeded by handing out pictures of a large pole shed structure that he believed would suffice and said a local contractor said he can put up a 100 by 120 square foot building for $260,000. The building would not be heated but would have an office and bathroom.
Office space is a need as well, but the idea of moving office personnel off site to another county building was not well received.
“We’d lose efficiencies with the office elsewhere. Winona County just moved their accountant off site and he’s said it’s no good,” Pogodzinski said.
Commissioner Steve Schuldt agreed, saying he didn’t like the idea of breaking up a department.
But Zmyewski pressed the board to think about what the county could do with the money it already has – $600,000. He said he would not support any effort that would increase taxes, especially because they have skyrocketed by 79.3 percent since 2005.
The information – supported with documentation – caused a moment of pause among board members as they digested the predicament they’re in.
“Do we need a maintenance facility? That’s indisputable,” Zmyewski said. “But I’m just saying let’s get creative and save some money here. We don’t have the money to do it all now.”
It’s true: Funding streams are limited.
The county has $600,000 set aside for the project.
The county may get an additional $300,000 if it decided to sell 22 acres of land it owns by the high school that was originally set aside to build a brand new highway shop.
Otherwise, the county take money it gets in state highway aid and use it to build a shop instead of fix roads.
Or, it can bond for money and pay it back over time with bits of state highway dollars each year.
The board was not prepared to make any kind of decision on the matter and set a special meeting on June 6 at 10 a.m. to further evaluate the options.
In other news
• The board approved hiring up to six 67 day employees to oversee (when needed) court ordered supervised parental visits. This saves the county money by not having to pay a social worker to do the work.
• The board also approved hiring three boat patrol deputies, positions paid for state and federal grants.
• The board entertained a presentation by employees of the Houston County Public Health Department on long term care consultations and home care services. Consultations and home care services give residents the tools they need to stay in their homes longer and avoid the need to enter into a skilled nursing facility.
• Finally, a public hearing has been set for Tuesday, June 4 at 10 a.m. to discuss the adoption of an ordinance that would require peddlers, solicitors and transient merchants to obtain a license to do business in the county. The ordinance was brought forth by Sheriff Doug Ely.