By Emily Bialkowski
The Houston County Board continues to struggle with the need to address frac sand issues and is waiting for a meeting with its land use attorney, Jay Squires, to finalize intentions on either drafting a ban or drafting restrictive regulations on the industry.
The public continues to press the board on its intentions. During the April 1 meeting, Julia Massman, of Caledonia Township, said she was surprised by the board’s waffling.
“It kind of puzzles me a little bit that we’re going back and forth and shifting as far as what Houston County does. I think the majority of people have made it clear that they don’t want to be a part of the industry of fracking sand,” Massman said.
A frac sand ordinance study committee was created in March to finish drafting an ordinance regulating the industry. The committee was formed after Squires warned Commissioner Teresa Walter that the county will have nothing to revert back to if a ban is found to be illegal. Then, on March 25, the board voted 3-2 to create a second frac sand committee with the sole purpose of drafting a ban. It was suggested the committees run parallel to one another so two options would be ready to go.
On April 1, Commissioner Steve Schuldt questioned the need for two committees.
“No one wants it, but the question is which is the best way to keep it away. I’d like to ban, if it can be done without being sued and infringing on land rights,” Schuldt said.
Walter said she doesn’t want to see the county left unprotected if a ban were to fail.
“That’s my fear,” she said.
Commissioner Dana Kjome said he will always vote in favor of banning frac sand mining but wanted to know more details.
“If the ban doesn’t work, where are we without regulatory oversight?” he questioned.
Schuldt said that is why legal advice is needed and urged the board to wait until Squires could offer advice.
But Commissioner Justin Zmyewski said Squires works for the county.
“We hire him to write what we want him to,” Zmyewski said.
A conference with Squires has been set for April 8, though details of that conversation were not available as of press time.
Bid process questioned
Houston County’s bid practices were called into question after the County Board approved the purchase of a compact track loader on March 18 from SEMA Equipment, of Caledonia.
The John Deere machine will cost the county $72,051, a better price than the state offers. But other local implement dealers reached out to Commissioner Justin Zmyewski, after the news was published, questioning why they didn’t get the chance to bid.
“We have two local dealerships that claim they could save the county $10,000 to $20,000,” Zmyewski said, adding, “My concern is: Was it a legal bid and do we need to cancel the order to save money?”
Commissioner Steve Schuldt said the Highway Department was specifically giving specifications for a John Deere, but Zmyewski countered by asking, “Why does it have to be a John Deere if we can save the county almost $20,000?”
County Engineer Brian Pogodzinski, who had left the meeting after his other agenda items were approved, was summoned back to offer insight.
Upon returning and being questioned by Zmyewski, Pogodzinski said: “We can ask for a specific piece of equipment, and we felt the John Deere was the best machine for us. At that point, we went to dealers of that machine. We did everything legally – the correct way.”
Zmyewski continued to press the matter and Pogodzinski recommended the discussion be taken offline so details could be hammered out. He said he couldn’t immediately comment on the proposals Zmyewski just handed him from other dealers and that he’d be happy to re-evaluate the matter.
“I’m a little hesitant to do business behind closed doors,” Zmyewski said.
“It takes time and effort to review stuff. I don’t know you want to do that for two hours in front of a public meeting,” Pogodzinski said.
“Why don’t you meet with Brian after the meeting?” Walter suggested, to which Zmyewski conceded.
Pogodzinski sought approval to utilize the state’s salt bid system to secure a stable price on road salt for 2014-15. The county has utilized this system for the last six years, Pogodzinski said, and has found the price satisfactory.
The county will request 32,500 tons of road salt, and Pogodzinski estimates the cost will come in around $60 to $65 per ton. The request was approved.
The County Board also approved the low bid on the County 5 reconstruction project, which will be jointly paid for by the county, city of Caledonia and state.
Tj’s Trucking & Excavating of Winona offered the low bid of $568,000, which was $65,000 over the engineer’s estimate. Pogodzinski said the engineer’s estimate was low on material costs and that all the bidders accounted for that. The additional cost will be covered by the state. The city’s portion will hover around $83,000, while the county will chip in approximately $88,000. The low bid was accepted.
Several personnel requests were brought before the board from Human Resources Director Tess Arrick-Kruger.
• The board agreed to hire Laura O’Heron as a public health nurse, effective April 28.
• The board agreed to hire Kathleen Franklin as an assistant county attorney, effective April 10.
• The board agreed to increase Jail Administrator Mark Schiltz’s cellphone stipend from $30 per month to $50.
The County Board came to a consensus on several other requests during the meeting.
• The board approved a scissors lift rental agreement with the Caledonia School District at $100 per day for four days per year.
• The board agreed to take Commissioner Judy Storlie off the Personnel Committee and replace her with Walter due to Storlie’s economic development activity.
• The board approved a Minnesota Boat & Water Safety Grant in the amount of $6,685 for one year to offset the cost of river patrol.