County board changes rules on speech at meetings

By Craig Mooregead

For the Caledonia Argus


Houston County commissioners voted to amend their “public comment” policy on May 27. Complaints about county employees will no longer be allowed, and video recording of meetings will only be permitted from behind the presenter desk and to the side of the room. A third suggestion, that only one person can speak on a given subject, was dropped as unfeasible.

Elizabeth Reedy of Money Creek made use of the first session under the new rules. She reminded the board about some comments made by Tom Landwehr, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at the May 21 meeting of the MN Environmental Quality Board.

The subject was a controversial Houston County conditional use permit. Landwehr stated that the county did not provide “good documentation” that the CUP did not lapse while prospector Minnesota Sands and Houston County were engaged in legal skirmishing. He also hinted that the Erickson sand mine may need to consult with MN DNR.

“At this point in time it’s my belief that a trout stream setback would be needed if any sand would be extracted,” Landwehr stated.

In addition, Landwehr said that the need for an EAW (environmental assessment worksheet) could still  encumber the site, even though the permitted use is no longer being changed over to frac sand production. Houston County was required to post notice of the EAW in the EQB Monitor, he noted, adding: “We have not had a request to post in EQB Monitor, so the county is not following the letter of the law and the rules, if that is in fact the position of the county and the other folks.


Wildcat Park improvements approved

The board voted unanimously to purchase a new set of playground equipment and install a security light next to the south washrooms at a popular riverside park just outside of Brownsville. The playground is designed for ages 5-12, and totals $25,331, while the total for the light and pole was $2,995. Volunteers will install the playground set.

The Wildcat Park committee members told commissioners that the lease agreement which the county has with the US Army Corps of Engineers (which owns the park) requires that funds received from the facility either be used for administration, maintenance or development. Any monies not used for those purposes are to be paid to the COE. In 2008, commissioners directed that the park become self-sufficient, with no further tax levy dollars used for upkeep and operations. Since 2010, the park has operated in the black, and has amassed a fund balance of $49,160.


Water Safety, Jail Issues

Commissioners accepted a federal water safety grant for $5,000, which will be funneled to the county through the State of Minnesota. Sheriff Doug Ely said that the money must be used for enforcement, and will help to pay for boat patrols on the Mississippi River.

County engineer Brian Pogodzinski asked for approval of five gravel stockpile bids, and got it. Typically used for smaller projects, those supplies will be tapped according to price and how close they are to work being performed, he said, since the cost of trucking materials is a significant factor for the county’s highway department.

Pogodzinski also provided bids from seven other companies, which can provide (as needed) a wide range of rental equipment to the county. Those items range all the way from a spare chainsaw to an end loader. “This is again for small projects,” he said. “The reason for this goes back to 2007, when FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) asked us to provide documentation on what we had to spend on that event.” The bids were approved.

Commissioners discussed staffing at the Justice Center and decided to continue working through that subject at a future meeting. Chief deputy Scott Yeiter noted that part-time employees can actually cost more than full-time staff, for a variety of reasons. First, the county pays benefits on a pro-rated basis, even for part-time employees. Secondly, training and equipping jailer/dispatchers is expensive, and full-time employees tend to have higher retention rates. Personnel/facilities director Tess Arrick-Kruger presented a break-down of costs, including overtime and comp time paid at time and one-half of the regular hourly wage.

On a related note, commissioners discussed the possibility of housing prisoners from both the City of La Crosse and the State of Minnesota in the Justice Center. Negotiations are underway for both of those options, and a recent Wisconsin law has removed barriers to crossing state lines, Yeiter stated.


Other News

Arrick-Kruger also asked for a closed session for “preliminary consideration of allegations against an employee under the board’s authority.” That session lasted more than 30 minutes. No further information was released.

Commissioners also approved a $3,529 PRISM (property record information system of Minnesota) grant from the state, which the county will use to provide tax information in a state-mandated format.

Finally, several pass-through grants were accepted on behalf of local snowmobile clubs.