On Feb. 25, Houston County commissioners awarded the final FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Authority) bridge repair project from last June's flooding.

Low-bidder Griffin Construction will work on a series of damaged structures. At $123,110, their offer was approximately 15 percent under the original estimate of $145,670, county engineer Brian Pogodzinski said. "This project will be paid with 75 percent FEMA funding, and 25 percent from the state, so there shouldn't be any county costs associated with it," he noted. Close to a dozen bridge sites are included on the bid.

Pogodzinski also asked the board to approve a resolution that will go to the State Legislature, and they did. The document favors HF 1286 and SF 1152, which would allow counties to "publish certain notices" on their websites instead of in an official newspaper. Commissioners noted that roadwork projects are especially well suited to a web-based bid process, while other notices should still be published on paper.

Finally, the board approved a cooperative agreement with the city of Caledonia to rebuild a section of County State Aid Highway 5 (Winnebago Street) between the city limits and County 249. Happily for Caledonia, the latest pact will utilize 100 percent state (CSAH) funds to rebuild storm sewers rather than split the bill between city and county, as originally envisioned.

Personnel requests approved

The board took the advice of personnel director Tess Arrick-Kruger, agreeing to change the employment status of financial worker Maria Stemper from probationary to regular effective Feb. 26. An additional request was also approved, when Kruger asked that new Public Health director Mary Marchell be given a $50 per month stipend towards her "smart phone" contract.

Dollars, energy from trash

Nick Nichols, sustainability coordinator for La Crosse County, brought the board up to date on what happens to solid waste from Houston County.

Environmental Services director Rick Frank was also on hand. He said that Houston County has had a cooperative agreement with its neighbor to the east since 1980, and now sends all of its garbage there for disposal.

Nichols explained how materials from seven counties in two states are recycled, incinerated, or land-filled. "In sustainability, we look at a triple bottom line," he said. "That includes the environment, the economy, and society.

In 2013, 53,273 tons of refuse were burned at the French Island incinerator, where enough electricity was produced to power 10,000 area homes. An additional 57,511 tons of material were separated from the waste stream for reuse.

"There's more and more things that we're trying to drag out of the landfill," Nichols noted.

Even buried "cells" continue to produce useful materials, as 300 cubic feet per minute of landfill gas (LFG) is collected and utilized.

"We take all that gas from the landfill and run it through a building that's right next to this (now unused) flare." Nichols said, "We remove particulate matter, cool the gas, take out all the moisture, then reheat it to about 110 degrees. Then we ship it underground 1.6 miles to an engine (generator) that they have over at Gundersen Lutheran's Onalaska Campus."

Nichols said that the gas to energy project went on-line in March of 2012. By the end of that year $178,000 worth of income was generated in the form of electrical energy (totaling approximately 6 million Kw h) and "waste" heat for buildings. The project is essentially fueled for free, since the gasses used to be burned off at the flare.

Frank said that Houston County's solid waste contract with La Crosse County runs through 2023.

Commissioners said they were impressed with the report, and asked Nichols for suggestions on how Houston County might save money through sustainability. He replied that wind turbines are one route, and the price of solar installations continue to decline. However, the first thing to do is look into efficiencies, he stressed.

"It's amazing the things you can find just by doing an energy audit," Nichols stated, offering to provide Frank with contacts on the matter.

Other news

Chairperson Teresa Walter reported that "we need another week to appoint the (frac sand) study group." That panel will be charged with drawing up a new industrial mining ordinance while the board continues to look into a possible ban on frac sand mining. Both a ban and a fall-back ordinance are possible, members noted.

By consensus, the county's board of equalization meeting was set for Tuesday, June 17, at 6 p.m.