County makes plea for money to repair courthouse
By Emily Bialkowski
Efforts to update the historical Houston County Courthouse continue to unfold, and county representatives will plead their case for money from the state on Oct. 8 in front of the Minnesota House Capital Investment Committee.
The courthouse, which houses the majority of the county’s essential departments and 68 employees, needs significant roof repairs, a new main entry, a new air conditioning system and an updated fire and security system. Also, the windows and doors need replacement, and the exterior stone walls need a professional cleaning.
The county has requested a 2014 capital appropriation of $500,000 to fix these significant deficiencies.
In their presentation, county staff will emphasize obstacles to self-funding the improvement project, including:
• Houston County is currently limited to a 3 percent levy increase.
• The county continues to experience increased demand for its services with limited ability to increase revenue.
• The county’s population continues to decline, while the population of those age 65 and older increases.
More specifically, in 2000 the total population was 19,718 with 16 percent age 65 and older. By 2012 the population declined to 18,837 with 19 percent age 65 and older.
This information, along with the fact that the building was constructed in 1885 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, will help it to fall on attentive ears, county representatives hope.
Early indications for funding, however, have not been positive. In early September, State Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, and Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, toured the building and entertained the county’s request for state dollars. The politicians agreed to fully support the proposal but warned that many other projects have stood in line longer.
“We appreciated the opportunity to see the building. We’ll do what we can to advocate on behalf of Houston County, but the request for the courthouse is going to be a challenge,” Miller said at the time, adding, “It’s not a quick process, as many of you know, and we’re just trying to be realistic.”
Davids echoed the sentiment and said there are requests that have been waiting for funding for upward of seven years.
“That said, we will carry it forward with all the effort we can give it,” Davids said.
The presentation will, at the very least, provide an opportunity to have the county’s plea heard.
Other county news
Other than efforts for the courthouse, the County Board had a lean agenda Oct. 1.
In response to June’s flood, the board awarded a shoulder aggregate contract to Breuning Rock Products for roughly $223,000. Highway engineer Justin Conway said the shoulders need attention sooner rather than later.
“With the farm traffic that’s coming, we’re going to lose our asphalt with no protection there,” he warned.
The item is scheduled to get FEMA dollars, but the bid was 6.9 percent over the estimated cost. Despite this, the board agreed to move forward and glean dollars from a different budget to get the work off the ground.
The Houston County Fair Board asked if the county would sponsor a grant application to the Minnesota Horse Council. The grant requires applicants to possess 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, and the board was hoping to use the county’s government status to apply.
This type of request has been approved in the past, but has recently been flagged by the auditors, Finance Director Carol Lapham said.
“We can say we are the fiscal agent, but if our name is on the grant, we have reporting requirements,” she said, asking that future requests be brought to her attention ahead of time.
The board approved the request with the condition that procedures be set up in the future to help the finance department.
Finally, the board agreed to schedule a closed session meeting on Oct. 9 to discuss allegations of misconduct by a county employee.