State Sen. Jeremy Miller (R- Winona), left, and State Rep. Greg Davids (R-Preston) met with Houston County commissioners last week.
State Sen. Jeremy Miller (R- Winona), left, and State Rep. Greg Davids (R-Preston) met with Houston County commissioners last week.

Houston County commissioners hosted State Sen. Jeremy Miller (R- Winona) and State Rep. Greg Davids (R-Preston) Tuesday, Aug. 27.

Following a tour of the historic courthouse, both reported Houston County's chances of landing 2014 State general obligation (GO) bonds to pay for half of a $1 million courthouse renovation project are slim.

Davids said that he and Miller have sponsored two different approaches to help pay for the project. The first would be through state bonding, while the second would be with a Legacy grant.

"I do see some hope in the Legacy area, (but) bonding is going to be very, very difficult," Davids stated. "There have been some projects in southeast Minnesota that have been requesting funds for seven or eight years that haven't been funded."

Miller concurred. "The (bonding) request for the courthouse is going to be a challenge," he added.

"With the Legacy dollars, we'll look at that. Just looking on the surface it looks like that might be a better fit, but the amount that we're asking for is going to be a large amount when it comes to the Legacy funds."

Legacy grants are currently capped at $300,000. Miller cautioned that regardless of the funding source, "It's not a quick process."

On a related note, County economic development coordinator Rick Howden later reported that Houston County has been approved for a $10,000 Legacy grant to produce a Historic Structure Report on the courthouse. That event, coupled with the fact that the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, bodes well for the project, he stated.

Legacy funds are available as a result of a 2008 vote by Minnesota residents to amend the Constitution to increase the state sales tax, with the money to be used for arts and cultural heritage as well as natural resources.

Disaster relief for flood-torn Minnesota counties will be the main focus of a Sept. 9 special session of both state houses, the lawmakers said. Davids reported that approximately 40 percent of the total discussed would be for Houston ($6 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency projects) and Fillmore ($1.9 million) counties. Houston County had the greatest amount of flood damage in the state when late June flash floods hit.

When FEMA projects are totaled, approximately $18 million dollars will be needed to pay for the repairs, Miller said. Those projects require a state/local match of 25 percent, so state legislators will debate providing about $4 million to $5 million in aid to counties. County Engineer Brian Pogodzinski added that the state will probably consider paying from 15 to 25 percent of the total. In 2007, the entire local match (25 percent) for FEMA flood projects was picked up by the state.

Other Highway Department news

Pogodzinski got approval for Mathy Construction to repair "dips" in County Highway 3. Commissioners confirmed that the work was included in the 2013 budget before voting on the request. The project estimate is $13,307.

Final payment for $4,144 of maintenance rock for county road 32 was also approved.

Finally, commissioners asked Pogodzinski to seek a roadway repair agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for Wildcat Park near Brownsville. That agency will be using park roads to load 250 tons of rock on a barge.

Resident addresses board

Lucille Omodt-Crow of Money Creek Township addressed the board during the "public comment" section of the meeting.

When the county granted a conditional use permit for a borrow pit along Perkins Valley Drive her field was damaged, Omodt-Crow said.

She reported that road contractor J. B. Holland had an agreement to pay neighbor Jeff Beckman for up to 30,000 cubic yards of fill for a road project. Omodt-Crow said she had signed an agreement to allow for the removal of some trees and a deteriorated boundary fence as part of the project, but never granted permission for soils to be taken off of her land.

Omodt-Crow charged Holland with felony forgery in regard to a zoning application on which her name appeared. It allowed the contractor to take soils from her field as well. She stated that 6,000 to 7,000 cubic yards were removed from her property, doing significant damage to a working field, and after the meeting, added that she was not paid for any of that material.

"This construction company forged my signature with the intent to defraud..." Omodt-Crow said. "I have had one of the top forensic handwriting specialists in the entire country validate that it is indeed a forgery... They did it because they thought they could get away with it."

"I saw this conditional use permit for the first time eight months after it was submitted to Houston County."

The Herald contacted County Attorney Jamie Hammell about the forgery allegations.

"I am aware of Ms. Omodt-Crow's complaints..." Hammell replied via email. "No action has been taken against J.B. Holland by Houston County."

Omodt-Crow said that Houston County's policies on CUP applications are partly to blame for the situation. "This would have never happened had proper up-to-date practices been in place in Houston County," she added. One of those practices would have been to confirm the validity of all permits by contacting all affected landowners, rather than accepting a signature at face value, she noted. Omodt-Crow said that J.B. Holland submitted the application "on behalf" of the landowners.

"I'm proposing a call to action to bring Houston County up to date," Omodt-Crow said, as she handed a packet of documents to each commissioner. Those papers suggested changes affecting how the Zoning Department, Planning Commission, and County Board operate.

Other news:

Commissioners voted to lower the asking price for a tax-forfeited lot in the City of Houston. Originally listed for $11,000, the property has been of interest to some neighbors (but not for that amount), Auditor Char Meiners reported. The motion lowered the asking price to $6,000. In a related matter, Meiners reported that a tax-forfeited property in Brownsville was sold for the full asking price.

The board briefly discussed instituting term limits for Planning Commission (PC) members, and told Meiners to go forward and advertise a public hearing on the issue for the evening of Sept. 30. Commissioners would then schedule talks on the matter during their regular meeting the following morning.

Commissioner Steve Schuldt questioned taking any action that might dismiss the PC en-masse, stating, "My concern is that we may be shooting ourselves in the foot (by) immediately going to term limits. Then we won't have any experience left on the committee for a short period of time. There's some good experience there. In my mind I can't see that the committee has done anything wrong..."

Chairman Justin Zmyewski said that enacting term limits would not immediately dismiss members. As proposed, the measure would gradually result in turnover as members complete their current terms. Only one member of the PC has less than ten years' seniority.

"It is an issue when you have someone there for nearly 40 years," Zmyewski noted. "You're really denying a lot of people the opportunity to be involved in their own government."

Commissioners also discussed 2014 budget requests with Ron Meiners of the Root River Soil and Water Conservation District, and Environmental Services Director Rick Frank.