On Nov. 26, Houston County commissioners brought two of their largest departments to the table to discuss the 2014 budget, which is currently over $70,000 higher than the maximum allowable levy.

County Engineer Brian Pogodzinski said he had $25,000 scheduled for shoulder rock, but some of that may be trimmed. That's because $237,000 worth of shoulders were damaged in 2013 and repaired with assistance from FEMA.

"The big levy item is equipment," he stated.

The county is getting behind in replacing aging machinery, Pogodzinski added. After spending $105,000 in 2013 on a plow truck, the 2014 budget proposal lists $550,000 for another new plow truck, backhoe, skid loader, and engineers' vehicle (listed as a Chevy Tahoe).

"The last couple years, we have really pinched on this," Pogodzinski said. "We're spending a lot of money repairing equipment that is near the end of its useful life."

Staff reported that the total for parts this year stands at $247,000. That's twice what the county spent just four years ago, Pogodzinski said.

The board disagreed on the amount of equipment that needs to be replaced in 2014. Chairman Justin Zmyewski argued that the $550,000 total is excessive. Others weren't so sure.

"We should have been replacing equipment on an ongoing basis," Commissioner Steve Schuldt said. Pogodzinski was asked to return for more talks at a future meeting.

The Human Services Department reported higher spending estimates for 2014, but even higher reimbursements from non-levy sources. When asked if $30,000 could be cut from her budget proposal, Director Linda Bahr said that $25,000 is probably possible, but only time will tell how much the county will be forced to spend on mandated services.

Public speaks out on mining

Five residents addressed the board during the "public comment" session. David Williams, Kelley Stanage and Brian Van Gorp reminded commissioners that the county cannot renew a conditional use permit at the Erickson mine (near Rushford) for bedding sand production, since the facility is one of the mines listed on the Minnesota Sands EIS (environmental impact statement) which the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board is preparing.

Brian Kuehmichel asked the board to require a performance bond for the Sheehan mine, which currently produces bedding sand. With another 20 years worth of production expected at the facility, "Only a bond can provide the required funds if needed due to the permit holders' failure to comply (with reclamation plans) for whatever reason," he said.

Betts Reedy reminded the board of their responsibility to take environmental concerns - even global ones such as climate change - into account when considering local issues. "It seems to me that in fairness to today's children, and to coming generations, we all need to begin to do something," she said. "I cannot imagine saying to future generations, 'Oh yeah, we knew you were going to be living in horrible circumstances, but we couldn't be bothered to do anything.'"

On a related note, commissioners went into closed session to discuss possible litigation with their attorney for land use issues. Zmyewski reported that the meeting was needed because Erickson has "reached out to the court for an opinion" in regard to last year's court decision. In that case, Minnesota Sands sought an injunction against the county, which had denied a conditional use permit for frac sand mining. The effect of the ruling upheld Houston County's moratorium on new frac sand mining permits until local ordinances are updated.

Other News:

By consensus, the board asked Pogodzinski to check with two bidders and return with more information on proposals to prepare a traffic analysis on county roads within the City of La Crescent. One bidder offered to do the work for less than half of the other ($10,000 versus $25,000). The study would look at city plans to route bike paths onto county roadways, with special attention to safety concerns, Pogodzinski reported.

"I think we need to sharpen the pencil a little bit," Commissioner Teresa Walter said.

"These bids are just too far apart," Commissioner Dana Kjome added.

Carla Blahnik of the Minnesota State Auditor's Office (MSAO) presented the board with an "exit interview" for the 2012 county audit.

"The county did receive an unmodified opinion..." Blahnik reported. "It's the best you can get.

There was more good news. During 2012, Houston County's unrestricted fund balance rose from 5.12 to 5.67 months' worth of estimated spending, Blahnik said. The MSAO recommends that all Minnesota counties maintain at least five months' worth spending in fund balance, she added.

Commissioners voted to approve final payment to Mathy Construction for pavement repairs on County State Aid Highway 10. The total for the job was $39,515.

The board also voted to hire Glenn Kruse as a 67 day drop site supervisor. Personnel Director Tess Kruger said the job represents a replacement, not a new position.