Houston County commissioners sat down with some experts on historic preservation on May 20, but still don't know if they can afford to save their 1875 jail building.

Personnel/facilities director Tess Arrick-Kruger said that a structural report on the flood-damaged building was still not complete. Cleanup, including the removal of walls, flooring and some ductwork is finished, however.

Arrick-Kruger introduced Bob Herskovitz of the Minnesota Historic Society and Sarah Beimers of the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office.

"Re-use of the building is eminently possible," Herskovitz said. "The exterior should remain pretty much as it is, but there's more latitude on the interior.... We would encourage you to retain the character of the defining features as much as possible."

When asked about the costs involved with a rehab, Herskovitz said, "There are potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in just Legacy money (grants) available. Although matching funds are not required, Legacy projects, which include those, stand a better chance of being funded." The program has "two to three times more requests than available dollars," Herskovitz noted. "Part of my job is to help you write a successful grant."

Arrick-Kruger said that the cost to raze the building was estimated at $96,000 two years ago. Although it is insured for up to $2.25 million (based on replacement value), only half of that sum would be paid out for removal of the structure.

If the building needs to be torn down, Beimers said that procedures are in place to allow that to happen.

"It would require a mandatory Environmental Assessment Worksheet...," she said. In addition, state law requires local units of government to cooperate with the Minnesota Historic Society for preservation of buildings or in cases of demolition, Beimers added.

"It would come into our office, and we would work with you to consult on options, and (we) would probably want to see what sort of feasibility studies were done for keeping it, or the costs of demolition, of course. We often see county jails or courthouses in that category. We provide recommendations; we consult."

Arrick-Kruger urged careful consideration and taking a long-term perspective on the issue. The building shares a listing on the National Register of Historic Places with the (original) Houston County Courthouse.

"I think it would be wise to forecast - not looking at just today and what's on your immediate plate - but also forecasts of five- and 10-year needs for this county... The costs of new construction 10 years from now if you need additional space. When you're looking at costing a project, it shouldn't just be in today's dollars with today's (needs). We would have to be looking forward.... I may sound like I'm promoting one side or the other, but I'm trying to be realistic about this.

"I want to make sure you've fleshed out all the potential before you throw the baby out with the bath. You'd better know what that baby might grow into."

Public hearing for Crest Precast

A public hearing on a tax abatement for Crest Precast of La Crescent Township was incorporated into the meeting. Houston County EDA coordinator Rick Howden said that the abatement would be linked to an upcoming expansion project which his organization has supported.

"The projected new estimated market value is $715,270," Howden said, "and we would be proposing a 75 percent abatement over a 10-year period, each of those years being an estimated $6,939. Part of this is to give them the stability and security to expand and grow their business."

The abatement would only apply to additional value, not existing facilities, Howden added.

There were no objections to the proposal voiced during the public hearing, and commissioners voted unanimously to grant the abatement immediately afterward.

Medical examiner reports

Houston County medical examiner Dr. R Ross Reichard appeared, providing an overview of services provided in 2013. Reichard works for the Southern Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner's Office, which is affiliated with Mayo Clinic in Rochester and provides services to multiple counties.

There were 72 cases reported last year, and 13 autopsies provided, he reported. The number of deaths investigated but not requiring certification was 54.

Highway, Human Services Departments appear

County engineer Brian Pogodzinski asked for a plat approval for the reconstruction of a section of County 13 west of Houston, which was granted. He also brought three bids for crack filling on county roads, and four to fill cracks on parts of the Houston County Airport. Four Season Maintenance won the former bid, and B & D Sealcoating the latter. The total was $93,850, but by the time MnDOT Aeronautics pays for half of the airport work, the amount will come in under the $90,000 budgeted, Pogodzinski reported.

Commissioners also approved the purchase of a replacement electronic sign for road work. Pogodzinski said that the county had two used units, but one has broken down and is not fixable. The 2005 model that the board decided to buy utilizes LED technology, and will cost $7,300. New units go from $40,000 on up, Pogodzinski said.

The board also approved a proposal from Human Services director Linda Bahr, which will allow her department to begin to transition from leased vehicles to purchased cars. Human Services currently leases three autos, but winds up paying a premium for "over miles" and reimbursing employees for mileage they wind up putting on their personal vehicles, Bahr explained. The plan would begin by turning in one leased vehicle and buying a replacement. By 2017, the county will no longer lease cars for the department.

Rein in public comment?

Chairperson Teresa Walter proposed making some changes to the "public comment" policy, which prevails at county board meetings, and asked members to consider the issue before deciding what to do next week.

Public comment may be limited to "one person on one subject," with the speaker allowed to cite others who join in on their opinions. Also, complaints about county employees will not be allowed, and would be routed through the Human Resources department. Walter said the reason for that change is to avoid data practice infringement, and cited the opinion of the county attorney on the matter. Finally, private recording of county board meetings would only be allowed behind the presenter desk area, to the side of the room.

Other votes

Commissioners voted to apply for a "Toward Zero Death" grant from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. The money would be shared between the Sheriff's Department and Public Health. Sheriff Doug Ely brought the application. He explained that special patrols within clearly-signed areas would take place if the grant is accepted, and TZD funds would pay overtime to officers who participate. In the past, Public Health has used TZD grant monies to promote educational programs aimed at reducing auto accidents.

The board also voted to confirm Samuel Kratt as summer help for the Surveyor's Office.