Getting a bird’s-eye view of the county

By Clay Schuldt

Caledonia Argus


The Houston County Board of Commissioners approved on Dec. 30 the purchase of new multi-angle aerial photographs, known as Pictometry. The last aerial flight photography conducted of Houston County was four years ago, and the last Pictometry was done six years ago.

The estimate for this flight is $65,700.

The cost of Pictometry has been cut nearly in half since 2008. Six years ago, the price was more than $120,000. The funds for this project will come from a combination of the Recorders Compliance Fund and the E911 Fund.

County Assessor Tom Dybing spoke on the need of the aerial photography. Dybing explained the photography allows the county to better understand the changes to property, which gives the Assessor’s Office more accurate information for the taxpayers.

Sheriff Doug Ely also commented that his department benefited from aerial photography, saying that the department could call up pictures of the area before sending out units on 911 calls.

The commissioners approved the purchase of 2014 aerial flight photography service. The photography is set to be taken in spring of 2014 after the snow has melted.

Planning Commission vacancy

Earlier in 2013, the board changed the ordinance to establish term limits for Planning Commission members. As a result of the change, a seat will be open on the commission.

At this time the county has received six applications from Houston County residents interested in the position.

The board decided to create a committee to review the applications. The commissioners agreed that the committee should include Commissioner Dana Kjome because he is on the Planning Commission as the commissioners’ representative. Commissioner Justin Zmyewski would also serve on the committee since the vacancy was from his district.

Commissioner Judy Storlie suggested the Planning Commission also participate in choosing the applicant.

“I think it is fair to ask the Planning Commission to be involved in it,” Storlie said.

She said she felt the more people involved in the process the better, and it would resolve communication problems between the Board of Commissioners and the Planning Commission.

Zmyewski said he believed this committee would simply screen the applicants and allow the full Board of Commissioners to make the final recommendation. Zmyewski was also against asking the Planning Commission to choose new members.

“That’s the fox guarding the hen house, asking them who they want to serve. The decision is made by the board. I would like the board to take leadership. … I don’t necessarily think it is appropriate to have the appointed appoint the appointees.”

In addition, Zmyewski said he felt the committee should be kept small to avoid complication.

Zmyewski made a motion to have the committee, including himself, Kjome and Environmental Director Rick Frank recommend finalists to the Board of Commissioners. The motion passed 4-1 with Storlie voting against.

The position being filled was previously held by Bruce Lee, whom had served on the Planning Commission for 23 years. The board expressed their appreciation for Lee’s decades of service to Houston County.


Salary adjustments

During the last Board of Commissioners meeting of the 2013 on Dec. 30, the board made a final decision on increasing salaries for non-union employees and elected officials.

The board ultimately approved salary increases for non-represented Houston County employees. In total, 13 non-represented employees received cost of living increases, which include a 1 percent raise on Jan. 1, 2014, and a 1.5 percent increase on July 1, 2014.

Finance Director Carol Lapham; Andy Milde, information systems director; and Jeremiah Shaver, network technician, were also given a salary step increase. Human Resource Director Teressa Arrick-Kruger commented that the step increase would go into effect on the anniversary of their starting date with the county, while the cost of living increase would start in January.

Lisa Erlandson, public health nurse,   and Michelle Schulte, staff nurse, were given a 1 percent discretionary increase.

The remaining eight non-represented employees received the cost of living increase as they had reached the maximum step progression. These employees include Arrick-Kruger; Laurie Bigalk, staff nurse; Assistant County Attorney Sue Bublitz; dietician Diane Sullivan; and four public health nurses, Nickie Folsom, Janis Lochner, Mary Thompson and Mary Zaffke.

Storlie made the motion to approve salary increases, which was seconded by Commissioner Steve Schuldt. Schuldt commented that the increases were modest and were a way of keeping things fair.

The motion passed with Zmyewski voting against.

“I voted against the union wages and the tax increase, so I have to stay true to my word,” he said. Zmyewski was added that his vote did not reflect on any of the employees.

On the subject of elected official salary adjustments, the board also approved a cost of living increase.

Storlie once again made the motion to approve the increase, with a second from Schuldt. Storlie commented that this was a cost of living adjustment, not a raise, and believed all employees deserved the cost of living increase.

Treasurer Donna Trehus received a slightly higher adjustment to prevent salary compression, increasing her salary to $54,340. The remaining elected officials received an equivalent cost of living increase to the non-represented employees.

This increase will set the annual salary in 2014 as $66,419.04 for auditor Charlene Meiners, $91,017.17 for Attorney Jamie Hammell, $60,627.46 for recorder Beverly Bauer and $86,371.95 for Sheriff Doug Ely. The motion also increased the annual salary of the commissioners to $19,016.34.

This vote, approved by 3-2, proved to be more controversial than the previous vote. Both Zmyewski and Kjome voted against the increases for elected officials. Zmyewski once again cited a need to keep expenses down.

The approval of this motion marks the first increase to the commissioner salaries in seven years.


Greenhouse permit decision tabled

The commissioners chose to table a decision on granting a permit for greenhouses in the Mound Prairie Township.

Ivan and Lois McElhiny had applied for a permit to build nine greenhouses on their property and it was approved by the Planning Commission, but during the most recent meeting of the Board of Commissioners, new information was submitted.

During public comments, Ted Von Arx, a neighbor to the McElhiny property, was against the greenhouse being built adjacent to his property line. Von Arx was not opposed to the greenhouse but was concerned the buildings would have a negative effect on his property value from a net worth and aesthetic perspective.

Zoning and Planning Director Bob Scanlan commented that he would be in favor of a closer examination on the site. The McElhiny plan is for nine greenhouses to be built on 7 acres, which already include a highway right of way. Scanlan had concerns involving water runoff created by the additional greenhouse roofs.

“Every time you add roof surfaces it will increase the water drainage issues,” he noted.

Scanlan suggested a storm water plan be created before approving the greenhouses.

Kjome made a motion to table the greenhouse permit and allow Soil and Water to make a determination on the site. The motion was passed by the board.


Other permits

In other zoning business, the board approved a land alteration permit for Michael Semling in Yucatan Township.

The permit was approved after the fact, since the land alteration had already occurred prior to notifying the Zoning Department. Scanlan was alerted to the alteration following a complaint from a resident.

The alteration occurred on Semling’s property, south of Houston in an area defined as a bluff area. Excavations in bluff areas require permits in Houston County.

The Planning Commission placed three conditions on the permit. They require that all federal and state permits be followed, that the seven part plan created by the Soil and Water Department be followed, and that no buildings or structures be erected on the site.

Also, a home occupation permit application from James and Cindy Burg was brought back to the board. The permit had first come up earlier, but it had been tabled to allow the Planning Commission to view the site.

The Burgs’ plan is to create a lodging business in the Old Mill, but the board wanted to ensure the facility passed the flood plan regulation and other Department of Health requirements prior to approval.

With the additional review complete, the board approved the permit.


Staffing changes

The resignation of social worker Karen Sanness was accepted by the board. Sanness has served Houston County since August 2001. Her resignation went into effect on Jan. 3, 2014.

The board next approved the search for a new full-time employee to replace Sanness. The commissioners did approve the hire of a 67-day social worker employee to assist with adult protection until the search for new full-time social worker was completed.

Network technician Jeremiah Shaver’s employee status was moved from probationary to regular status upon his completion of 2,080 hours of service.

Last on the agenda, Craig Welsh was approved as a 67-day employee in building maintenance.


Highway news

The board approved a grant agreement with the Minnesota Department of Transportation Aeronautics to receive payment for the airport overlay project. Highway Department Engineer Brian Pogodzinski said this agreement would not commit the county to any additional requirements.

In other airport business, the board approved the update to the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program in place at the Airport. The program needs to be updated every five years to obtain federal and state funding.