State administrators have supported the prerogative of Minnesota counties to ban frac sand mining in certain areas, Houston County Commissioners were told on Oct. 22.

Chairman Justin Zmyewski stated that he met with Will Seuffert, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB) last week to discuss frac sand mining issues, and found support for local control.

"We had some interesting conversations on their role, how they're going to help the counties (regulate frac sand mining)," Zmyewski began.

"Instead of having a blanket set of guidelines for the whole state, there may be an independent set dealing with each area, each region. The director came down and met with a few people and made kind of a tour of Southeast Minnesota."

"One of the points I was trying to get across is that our region is very different from the rest of the state. We have different geology..."

"Are there certain areas that should be off limits? We've had people over in the Wabasha-Lake Pepin area that have said, 'This needs to be off limits,' so we asked about the possibility of...those kinds of restrictions. Is it still on the table that certain areas need to be banned due to geology or due to economic impact?"

He said that is not off the table at all.

"Their Technical Advisory Committee also said that they'd be willing to work with counties to try and draw up guidelines, and if the county was looking at either heavily restricting or banning, that's something they could work directly with the county with as far as how to write up those."

Zmyewski said that EQB personnel also noted that the resources of the State Attorney General's Office are available to help counties draft mining ordinances.

"They're there to help the counties, support us with what we want to do," he concluded.

Several commissioners said that they will attend EQB silica sand subcommittee meetings on the issue this month. Those include a session in St. Charles on the morning of Oct. 29, and an afternoon session the same day in Wabasha. The meetings are open to the public.

Personnel/Facilities votes

Commissioners voted to hire Chris Hartley as probationary maintenance specialist for the county's highway department effective Nov. 12. The offer is contingent upon completion of a background check.

Following a "false alarm," which sent fire engines racing to the historic courthouse last week, Personnel/Facilities Director Tess Kruger asked the board to approve a contract for repairs to the alarm system.

They agreed. The contract with Hoskins Electric calls for the replacement of a fire alarm control panel, the installation of a new "custom alarm notifier" panel with new detection devices throughout the building, and State of Minnesota inspection. The total cost is $9,280.

Kruger also reported that drainage "tunnels" underlying the Criminal Justice Center have now been cleared of debris.

Later in the meeting, Kruger returned to lead commissioners in closed session discussions of "allegations or charges against an employee who is subject to the authority of this board." As the third closed session on the matter, it consumed an additional 2-1/2 hours. When the meeting resumed, Kruger reported that the incident has been remanded to the employee's supervisor. Commissioners did not take any formal action against the undisclosed county employee.

More road bids approved

The board approved a road repair estimate for County State Aid Highway (CSAH) 12 which totaled $1,032,931. Low-bidder Griffin Construction of Houston will do the work. The project is a 2013 FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) flood contract, County engineer Brian Pogodzinski said. That means that 75 percent of the cost will be borne by the federal agency, while state aid pays the 25 percent local match.

A second FEMA project involves $16, 587 for guardrails along CSAH 19. That was also approved, along with two additional guardrails, which the county will pay for. The first is along CSAH 32 ($26,365), and the second CSAH 5 ($25,370). All the work was awarded to Mattison Construction of Wisconsin.

Lastly, commissioners approved $5,187 in repairs to a highway shop that the county shares with La Crescent Township. Pogodzinski said insurance might end up paying for most of the cost, which results from damage to some doors and walls.

Other News:

Public Health/Nursing personnel addressed the board on 2013 budgetary questions. Commissioners asked for the meeting when expenditures appeared higher than anticipated this year.

Fiscal Supervisor Loretta Lillegraven reported that budgeting beforehand for services that her department will provide is always a challenge, since the number of "episodes" which require visits varies from year to year.

"We bill in the health care arena for services," Lillegraven stated.

Reimbursements sometimes take months to arrive, as well. In September alone, $78,808 in grant-funded monies were not received, skewing the books. Those funds finally did arrive in October, Lillegraven added.

"We also have about 20 different pay sources," outgoing Director Deb Rock noted.

"It sounds like a budgeting nightmare," Commissioner Steve Schuldt said.

"It's really tough for us to do a budget/tax levy when we don't know what it is going to cost us," Commissioner Dan Kjome added.

Lillegraven reported that reimbursements from state and federal funding sources no longer cover costs. That's a major change. Just ten years ago, the department actually brought money into the county general fund, she noted.