By Emily Bialkowski
Residents, commissioners and other officials who visit the Houston County Highway Department don’t debate the need for new or improved facilities. The County Board, however, remains divided on how to best tackle the expensive problem. A sub-group comprised of a few county commissioners and County Engineer Brian Pogodzinski has occasionally met to share and gather facts on how to address the deficiencies. Most pressing is a need for a maintenance shop. Also on the table is the patchwork of fixes the county has strung together to get by and keep the building up to OSHA standards.
During the April 15 County Board meeting, Commissioner Justin Zmyewski reported on meeting with Pogodzinski and said the two are at a “stalemate in terms of cutting cost.”
Zmyewski said the board should set a budget of $1 million before proceeding, but others said it’s too early to do so.
“I want to see the needs before limiting,” Commissioner Judy Storlie said.
“I’m still looking for more concrete costs,” Commissioner Teresa Walter added.
But Zmyewski said you wouldn’t go to a contractor to build a house without first setting a budget. “To be honest, I’d like some direction in terms of how much money the county is willing to allot,” he said.
Commissioner Dana Kjome agreed, saying, “Let’s see what we can get for a million.”
But others said it might behoove the county to revisit plans drafted over five years ago and tweak them to something more affordable, something less than the $4 million proposed. That original plan put the Highway Department on acreage the county owns near Caledonia High School. The county sidestepped that plan due to the construction and cost of the Justice Center.
Zmyewski made a motion to set a budget of $1 million, which was seconded by Kjome, but the motion failed on a 3-2 vote. Zmyewski agreed to go back to Pogodzinski for further discussion.
Despite focus being shifted to the Historic Houston County Jail and its new state of damage, the County Board continued on with other business April 15 and reviewed several agenda items.
Human Resources Director Tess Arrick-Kruger presented a $7,300 proposal to re-key the historic courthouse building. She said the building’s security and access was a concern of hers dating back several years and little by little different aspects have been addressed. A fire alarm incident weeks ago, however, rekindled the urgency to fix the entire situation as fire crews had trouble figuring out which key went to which room. “It became very apparent where our gaps were,” Arrick-Kruger said.
Questions about the building’s four access points were brought up, and Arrick-Kruger said if it were feasible, she’d like only two open doors during the day with the other two doors used for egress, though that might cost more money. Commissioner Judy Storlie said if the county is going to spend money on improving safety, then perhaps that additional issue should be addressed at the same time. Arrick-Kruger said she agreed and that she’d come back with additional information.
Commissioner Steve Schuldt asked if rekeying was budgeted for, and Arrick-Kruger said it will come out of the yearly maintenance budget. “From a safety perspective this has been a major undertaking with baby steps. This is the last bit in that regard,” she added.
• The board approved a calcium chloride bid with Freeborn County Co-op at $0.86 per gallon, $1.06 per gallon if applied. The county will purchase upward of 80,000 gallons of chloride for dust control on county roads. Some of the chloride is also purchased on behalf of the county’s townships, who reimburse the county.
• The board also approved a security system maintenance agreement for the Justice Center at $3,466. “This is something we can not do without,” Arrick-Kruger said, adding that such agreements save the county money in the long run.
• Zmyewski and Walter reported that a productive meeting of the frac sand ordinance study committee took place and that the next meeting will be Monday, April 28.
• Finally, Linda Bahr and Tim Hunter presented an update from the Human Services Department. Most pressing is the need to reconsider the department’s car leases and mental health needs in the county. Hunter said the county has had a record setting amount of mental health commitments this year – five – underscoring the need for continued effort in that arena. Bahr said purchasing vehicles outright will likely be more cost effective in the future as the leases are hovering around $20,000 a year. No action was taken on the issues. Bahr also reported that the department’s budget is on par for the year.
On a bright note, Hunter said child placements are down significantly. “We’re under double digits for the first time since 1996 as far as anyone can remember,” Hunter said. He attributed the positive trend to efforts by social workers to help families work through issues before they reach crisis level.