County commissioners meet with local
legislators as spring session approaches
Wednesday, February 05, 2014 3:17 AM
Fillmore County's commissioners welcomed local legislators to the Tuesday, Jan. 28, county board meeting to review county goals in relation to the upcoming state legislative session.
Commissioner Randy Dahl listens as Sen. Jeremy Miller and Rep. Greg Davids update the county board last Tuesday on news of the upcoming legislative session. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPERS
Sen. Jeremy Miller and Rep. Greg Davids sat before the board, sharing that the 2014 spring legislative session is set to begin Feb. 25 and end mid-May.
Miller acknowledged that 2014 is a bonding year, with the projected bonding budget set "between $850 million and $1 billion." He added there are several notable bonding projects that area communities hope are included in the bill. The Lanesboro dam is in dire need of repairs because of the safety implications of it not being repaired. Miller said it's "an absolute priority for safety." Other hopeful inclusions would be the Chatfield Center for the Arts, the National Trout Learning Center in Preston, as well as a school project in Rushford and at the fish hatchery.
The senator stated, "We're going to try to become more efficient. We don't know what to expect in bonding, but I guess the amount is between $850 million and $1 billion range. There are several projects in Fillmore County and we need both Republicans and Democrats to get that done. Roads, bridges and infrastructure are the other extremely important projects. We hope to close off the session and do as little harm to the state as possible."
The commissioners then shared a list of priorities they would like the legislators to handle, as well as a list of priorities the Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC) would like them to deal with.
Fillmore County Human Resources Officer Kristina Kohn outlined a request regarding how veterans are hired, as "at the state level, if a veteran is hired, they're subject to probation, but at the county level, there's basically no probation and they're entitled to preference." In other words, having served their country, veterans are being given first-draft candidacy for job interviews, even when they do not feel that receiving such preference, or first-draft candidacy, is a fair practice to themselves or the other candidates. Veterans also can't be let go from county positions unless they have been deemed incompetent for their respective positions.
Kohn and Fillmore County Veterans' Services Officer Jason Marquardt both noted that area veterans have expressed their dismay at the effects the preference has on their job prospects.
Commissioner Randy Dahl said, "They very much don't want their disabilities to be part of the job application process. We don't want to put any stumbling blocks in front of them for hiring."
Community Services director Beth Wilms reported that the Social Services department is working to "align itself with income maintenance programs," and that it is diligently examining administrative efficiency and effectiveness in light of shrinking financial resources and technological challenges posed by antiquated computer operating systems.
Recently, the department's staff has been fielding questions related to MNSure, the Minnesota Affordable Care Act (ACA) insurance exchange marketplace. She said, "What's confusing people is that they think MNSure is Minnesota Care or Medicaid, but it's just the marketplace to go to to get insurance. There's a misconception that the county is running it, and I feel that consumers are getting the run-around."
Fillmore County Nursing Director Lantha Stevens concurred, "We want to be good stewards," even though the staff is not able to authoritatively distribute information on MNSure.
Davids then engaged the commissioners in an intense discussion about MNSure's failure and his non-support of the ACA, also known as ObamaCare.
Miller stated, "I think it's a well-intended program with several unintended consequences that are real and hurting people throughout Minnesota. We need to do everything we can to try to make it work."
Commissioner Chuck Amunrud, chairman of the board, spoke up to keep the meeting in progress, inviting county auditor and treasurer Shirl Boelter to report on progress her department would like to see in the coming year.
She related that the department is concentrating on replacing its own antiquated computer operating system, studying taxes as they apply to mobile homes and "no excuse absentee voting," in which a voter comes to the auditor's office, files an absentee ballot and witnesses that ballot being counted before leaving the office.
Boelter explained, "During the 2012 election, we opened envelopes for six hours...now people can vote and see that it's counted."
Dahl introduced the county's wish list for highway department bonding, observing that the costs associated with hiring an outside engineer to "tell you that the bridge you knew was deficient is deficient" for a sum greater than the cost of having the county's engineer assess a bridge doesn't make sense.
Fillmore County highway engineer Ronald Gregg told the legislators, "I like hearing Senator Miller's stress on the importance of infrastructure." He informed them of the county's 472 bridges, 55 have been deemed structurally deficient and 13 are functionally obsolete. Statewide, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has requested $75 million in this year's bonding bill for highway infrastructure repairs but is hoping for a minimum of $30 million to be spent over the next two years.
Gregg showed Davids and Miller a color-coded map of the bridges in the county, stating the red dots denoted structurally deficient and functionally obsolete bridges that could be subject to repairs should there be funding available. Additionally, the commissioners agreed with Gregg that existing bridge sizes and weight limits should be adhered to, as trucks carrying large loads need enough support and stopping distance to safely navigate the structures.
Fillmore County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) coordinator Donna Rasmussen spoke on her department's hopes. "In 2002 to 2003, our funding was slashed and never restored. Counties and soil and water conservation districts are key players in clean water programs and activities, and in order to keep going, we need stability to base our programs on," she said.
Rasmussen added that while state clean water funds are a great source of funding for the county, it's getting very competitive. "This year, over half of the clean water funds went to eight Metro counties, compared to 73 other counties, and that's basically only because they have joint powers," Rasmussen said. "And those funds are basically the only clean water funds we have access to."
She said the local SWCD has built up relationships with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), which have been a very stable source of funding.
"We've been operating at less than our base funding and that's a problem because we want to support the livestock industry, but we're asking people to do things, but our ability to cost share is getting less and less," she concluded.
Having recently completed a pay equity study and report, county coordinator Bobbie Vickerman asked the legislators if they could encourage the state to push pay equity studies to five years apart instead of every three years, as it is time-consuming and inefficient to conduct a study so often.
Also, she stated that she would like the legislators to consider the option of allowing the county to hold daytime budget meetings, as the county's budget has been discussed and re-discussed for at least a month prior to the official budget approval meeting, which tends to be poorly attended anyway. "There are efficiencies and ways that we can improve," she said.
In the end
Amunrud thanked the legislators for coming to the county board meeting and reviewing goals to take to the upcoming session. He encouraged both men to contact the board with any questions they might have.