County board splits on borrowing

Craig Moorhead

The Caledonia Argus

By a 3-2 margin, Houston County commissioners voted to use “no new tax dollars” in the construction of a new highway department headquarters/shop last week. The March 6 ballot followed a question and answer session with three highway department employees, who weighed in on what’s needed.

Essentially, if commissioners stick with their decision, the county would forgo bonding for the project. Construction would rely on dollars already saved and earmarked for the task, and fund balance from the highway department.

The motion to do so came from commissioner Justin Zmyewski, seconded by commissioner Fred Arnold. Board chair Jack Miller also voted “yes” on the matter, while commissioners Scott Connor and  Teresa Walter voted “no.”

“Cash is king,” Zmyewski confirmed on March 8. “We’re going to use cash.”

Also contacted after the meeting, county engineer Brian Pogodzinski said that the amount of available funds could vary widely, depending on how much the board decides to maintain in cash reserves. Six months worth of highway department operating expenses are considered the norm, he noted. Those rainy day funds need to be on hand to make road and bridge repairs after events like 2016 floods,  Pogodzinski stated (which could cost the county a half-million dollars more than it receives in reimbursements).

However, anywhere from $4 million to $5.5 million is available without postponing any scheduled roadwork, the engineer reported. “I definitely think it’s possible,” he concluded.

Previous commissioners set aside $600,000 towards the building project. Those dollars have grown as wheelage tax monies (approximately $200,000 per year) were committed to the project nearly three years ago.

The scope of the project has also been trimmed, but no plans are set in stone. Back in 2009, the board listened as architects outlined a comprehensive building plan costing $6,976,588. New structures would have included offices, meeting rooms, and storage space for multiple county departments. Eventually, those plans were abandoned as too costly. More recent proposals have still called for a new shop, offices, meeting room and more. Those would replace the rundown highway department headquarters building and the repair shop.

“You’ve got to set a budget first,” Zmyewski argued prior to the vote.

“You need some estimates before you can set a budget,” Walter countered.

“What you’re saying is, you design a house, and then figure out if you’ve go enough money to pay for it,” Zmyewski stated. “When you look at the last 20 years, Houston County is one of the five highest taxed counties, and we’re at second to lowest as far as median income.”

“The previous estimate by a former commissioner, spending $5 to $9 million (for this) is a good reason why I’m sitting here,” Miller said. “That’s how the public feels. We have an albatross around our neck, and that’s it. If you’re going to have young families moving into the county, they don’t care what the county maintenance building looks like. They care what the schools are like.

Other votes

Sheriff Mark Inglett brought new three-year contracts for Code Red and IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert Warning System) services. Those provide Amber Alerts, tornado warnings, and more to residents. By going from a one-year service agreement to a longer time frame, the county will save a substantial amount per year, he explained. The offer was accepted, payable from E911 funds at $6,672 per year.

Inglett also offered his department’s 2016 report. There were a total of 5,197 calls for service last year. Including Winona County and other out-of-county inmates, the Houston County jail housed an average of 28.7 persons per day.  Out-of-county inmate housing brought in $185,148 to help offset expenses at the facility. The department made 1,615 traffic stops in 2016, attended to 155 vehicle crashes, and mounted 226 hours of water patrols. There were no fatal traffic accidents within the county last year. Revenue totals (including grants) stood at $237,369. Actual expenditures for the department totaled $1,603,752.

The board also decided to transfer a sport utility vehicle from the Highway Department to the Sheriff’s Department.

• Commissioners hired Audrey Staggemeyer as the county’s new WIC program coordinator, a .7 FTE position. They also accepted the March 31 retirement of county assessor Thomas Dybing, who has served in that position for nearly 23 years. A competitive search for a successor was approved.

• The board approved a series of annual computer replacements (a budgeted item), and a $46,476 bill for software licenses, a much larger total than the hardware expenses. A discussion ensued on what sort of day to day purchases need to be placed on the regular agenda for debate, and which can be approved as “consent” items. Members settled on a $10,000 threshold when it comes to equipment and vehicles.

• Houston County Fair Board secretary Emily Johnson provided that group’s 2016 financial report. Some rough weather during last year’s fair resulted in a $8,771 overal loss during the event. Johnson thanked the board for their support, and asked commissioners to consider leasing the fairgrounds for 50 years when the current 25 year lease expires in 2019.

• The board approved an Interim Use Permit for Shawn Kiecker and the Lois Davy Revocable trust to locate a temporary farm dwelling on the Davy farm (Brownsville Township). The temporarily located structure will incorporate both living quarters and a passive solar greenhouse, and must be removed (or seek a new permit) when no longer inhabited by Kiecker and his immediate family, or when the trust no longer owns the land.

• Commissioners also revisited and passed updates to the county Economic Development Authority’s bylaws and enabling resolution.