By Emily Bialkowski
The Houston County Board took the first step toward instituting a wheelage tax during its June 18 meeting.
The wheelage tax has existed in the five metro counties for some time, and this year the state Legislature agreed to allow all counties to collect the fee if desired.
The policy taxes all vehicles licensed in the county at $10 apiece. In Houston County it is estimated 19,800 vehicles will be subject to the tax, which will generate $198,000.
Counties that want to enact the tax and have the state collect it beginning Jan. 1, 2014, must notify the state of their intent by Aug. 1. The board took a first step to institute the wheelage tax by setting a public hearing on the matter for 10 a.m. July 16 at the courthouse.
If enacted, the tax will be included on vehicle registration renewal statements. Motorcycles, mopeds, trailers, semitrailers and collector vehicles will not be subject to the tax.
As the board considers the fate of the deteriorating highway shop and the historic jail, attention is naturally being drawn toward the courthouse, which is also in need of repairs.
Human Resources Director Tess Arrick-Kruger asked the board for up to $4,000 to pay its consultant, Pathfinders, to prepare preservation planning documents necessary for the state grant application process. She said the courthouse is in need of a roof, steps, facia, some windows, air conditioning unit(s) and a new fire alarm system.
All of these items have been patched over the years to the point where the facility is reaching critical mass.
“As you know there is a whole laundry list of things that can be done – should be done,” Arrick-Kruger said, adding that the work will reach the $1 million mark.
Commissioner Justin Zmyewski expressed concern over the situation. “We just said publicly we have a million dollars worth of fixes: What if we don’t get the state to come on board with this?”
“We’ll keep fixing and do what is reasonable on behalf of the county,” Arrick-Kruger said.
The board does have $300,000 tucked aside for such a project and, in the best-case scenario, will qualify for a $500,000 matching grant from the state.
The board unanimously approved a resolution authorizing an application to Minnesota Management and Budget requesting funds be included in the 2014 bonding bill for courthouse improvements. The resolution is a formal way to let the state know Houston County is looking to maintain this historic structure and would like help doing so.
Rick Howden, the county’s consultant on economic development efforts, requested the board approve a revolving loan to Alpine Nursery for $30,000 for seven years at a 2 percent interest rate. The loan is being matched by a bank loan and will allow the business to construct additional facilities.
The Economic Development Authority recommended approval of the loan, and the board followed suit.
Public Health Director Deb Rock gave a brief overview on a $3,000 grant the county received in collaboration with Fillmore County. The grant allows the two counties time and resources to consider what services can be shared.
“We’ll examine how to be efficient while resources are diminished,” Rock said.
Some of the questions that will be addressed include how the counties might share staff, programs and funding streams.
As promised at earlier meetings, Arrick-Kruger presented the board with information on how to best utilize a combination of full-time, part-time and temporary employees to cover shifts at the jail. A thorough evaluation was performed by Arrick-Kruger with key jail personnel and the finance department.
The resulting recommendation was to hire a total of three halftime jailer/dispatchers.
“We’re not asking for any more money,” Arrick-Kruger said, adding that this is the most cost-effective scenario the group could produce while following Department of Corrections guidelines.
The recommendation received unanimous approval.
The Wildcat Park and campground in Brownsville houses several seasonal campsites to those seeking a permanent summer retreat. The arrangement guarantees park management the rental income while also guaranteeing campers a spot.
Every two years, a lottery was held for those interested in a seasonal spot, but the county board decided to extend the lottery to once every four years in an effort to match demand.
The lottery allows everyone interested in a spot the opportunity to secure a site. Since demand for a site has been a little lower in recent years, this change accommodates those with long-term interest. That said, if a waiting list were to develop quickly, the county reserves the right to hold the lottery at will.
There was no public comment on the matter, and it passed unanimously.