On Tuesday, April 1, Houston County commissioners decided to put off making committee assignments for a panel aimed at finding legal language for banning frac sand mining. By consensus, the group agreed to wait another week, since they are scheduled to hold a conference call with land use attorney Jay Squires on April 8.

The county already has another committee working to draw up a new frac sand mining ordinance as an alternative to banning the burgeoning industry.

"We're going to need reasons why we do a ban," Commissioner Steve Schuldt said. "It's got to be something pretty solid... I'd like to ban it as long as it's not infringing on people's land-use rights."

Commissioners Dana Kjome and Justin Zmyewski said they favored banning the practice. Commissioner Judy Storlie was not present, but Chairperson Theresa Walter stated that either an outright ban, or regulations that will make industrial-scale mining unfeasible should be enacted.

"We're all going in the same direction," Kjome noted. "I'm afraid of regulations. The track record of regulations is not always that good.... I was reading yesterday about some people in Wisconsin trying to sell their property, which was next to a (frac sand) mine. The value of the property (had fallen) so bad that they can't sell it.

"I was a big land-use (rights) guy when I got elected. But when whatever you are using your land for effects your neighbor's lifestyle, their land's values, and their health, then I have an issue with that."

Schuldt agreed, but asked the board to wait until Squires renders his opinion on whether or not a ban will stand up in court before proceeding. Auditor Char Meiners reported that Squires was asked to research banning industrial sand mining during a previous conference call. The public was excluded from hearing those conversations.

Kjome said that the scale of construction and agricultural sand mining do not pose a threat, but, "The trouble with industrial sand mining is the intensity, the extended hours, with lots of truck use, lots of water being used. These are resources that can't be renewed. If they take a bluff down, are they going to put it back?"

Kjome added that he had a model ordinance that bans frac sand mining. That document comes from Florence Township in Goodhue County.

"Personally, I'd love to just say, 'Let's ban it,'" Walter stated. "But I would like to know that we would have a backup (ordinance) to regulate it, restrict it, control it, if we need to."

Walter said that the county will need to decide which path to follow, since commissioners cannot pass conflicting ordinances.

Earlier, Julia Massman of Caledonia Township broached the subject during a "public comment" session.

"I think the majority of the people of Houston County have made it clear that they don't want to be a part of the (frac sand) industry... I don't think that this is who we are," she said. "I think that this is farm country. It is not frac country. You people have admirably served us on issues of health and safety, on the roads and bridges (in the county) that concern citizen's safety....

"It puzzles me to no end, the split that has come up and the fact that we are still talking about it. If you think that your responsibility is to business people moving in with an industry from out of town, you're badly mistaken. You were elected by farmers. And those farmers have more of an investment in their individual businesses than anybody else. You are not here to represent frac sand companies."

Two new hires

Commissioners voted to hire Laura O'Heron as probationary Public Health nurse, a full-time position. The board also approved Kathleen Franklin as assistant county attorney, another full-time, probationary post. Both job offers are conditioned upon the successful completion of a background check, and represent replacement, rather than new job openings. O'Heron will begin on April 28, while Franklin will start on April 10.

Salt contract, road bid approved

The board voted to join the state bid contract for roadway salt in 2014. County engineer Brian Pogodzinski said that Houston County might be able to save some money by buying salt on its own, but it's risky.

"One year there was a salt shortage, and the county paid double," he stated. Houston County purchases 32,500 tons of salt annually, Pogodzinski added. The cost has recently been around $62.00 per ton.

"We're going to use up more than that this winter, but this will be enough to replenish our stockpile," he concluded.

Commissioners also approved low bidder TJ's Trucking and Excavating to rebuild part of County State Aid Highway 5 within the city of Caledonia. The engineer's estimate for the work was $503,552, while the bid was $568,807. Pogodzinski said that the county will pay approximately $88,000, while the city will pick up $83,000. The state will cover the lion's share, including the added 12.96 percent.

The board later brought Pogodzinski back to discuss the purchase of a John Deere track loader, after Zmyewski again questioned the cost. The spending was approved on March 18, and Zmyewski said that by allowing more local equipment dealers to bid, as well as considering more makes and models, the department could have saved anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 of the $72,000 price tag. Pogodzinski offered to meet with commissioners to discuss the matter, but said that he wasn't sure if it was too late to cancel the order or not.

Safety grant, agreement approved

The board approved the annual State Boat and Water Safety Grant, which will help pay for seasonal patrols on the Mississippi River. The total is $6,685.

Another agreement that got a nod of approval will allow the county to rent a scissor lift from Independent School District #299 for four days per year at an annual cost of $400. Personnel/facilities director Tess Arrick-Kruger said that the Justice Center has high ceilings which necessitate either buying or renting a lift to do maintenance such as changing lights, and renting from the school district was the most cost-effective way to take care of the building.

Other news

Schuldt agreed to replace Storlie on the Personnel Committee. Walter said that Storlie requested the change due to the time involved with her other committee assignments.

Meiners was given the go-ahead to pursue a 25-year extension on the lease that the county has on Wildcat Park. The popular campground belongs to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the current lease has about six years remaining, Meiners said. The move will make it easier for the county to pursue grant monies for improvements to the facility, Walter stated.

Commissioners also approved increasing jail administrator Mark Schiltz's cell phone per diem from $30 to $50 per month.