In a 3-2 vote, the Houston County Board of Commissioners narrowly decided that no new tax dollars would go toward construction of a new Highway Department building.

Commissioner Justin Zmyewski made the motion during the board’s March 7 meeting.

“I’ve preached this,” he said. “Does the board feel it wants to go to the taxpayers for this project?”

“I haven’t heard an exact dollar figure,” responded commissioner Scott Connor. “So I don’t know what would be new (tax dollars).”

Finance director Carol Lapham said the county is in the process of compiling the 2016 year-end balance. “We should have figures soon,” she added.

According to Lapham, the Highway Department fund balance was approximately $4.5 million as of September 2015. She stated that money could be utilized for the department’s building.

Commissioner Teresa Walter said she favors getting revised project estimates before setting a building budget.

Zmyewski’s motion received a second from commissioner Fred Arnold.

During a roll call vote, chairman Jack Miller joined with Arnold and Zmyewski to take new taxes off the table as a potential funding option for the highly-debated building project.

Connor and Walter felt such a vote was premature without having hard numbers in front of them.

Q & A with Highway Dept. staff

Before its vote, and as a result of an earlier request of the board, county engineer Brian Pogodzinski and two Highway Department employees appeared before the commissioners.

Mechanic Rick Vesterse and accountant Sheila Schroeder answered several questions regarding their job duties and facility needs.

Miller rattled off a list of about eight maintenance tasks for Vesterse and asked him to answer if the county could currently perform each task in its existing facility?

Vesterse said, “Yes” to all but one. “There is no place to do clutch repairs at the current shop,” he elaborated.

Pogodzinski added that most repairs that can’t be done in Caledonia are handled through La Crosse Truck Center. He estimated in the last five years, the county had spent around $200,000 on parts and labor for these outside repairs.

According to Vesterse, there is a possibility of being able to “do a lot more at the shop” with the right equipment and additional space.

Talks of a new Highway Department headquarters go back nearly 25 years. The matter received considerable attention during the commissioner’s Feb. 7 meeting when Pogodzinski gave a PowerPoint presentation on the current building and the project’s history.

Pogodzinski presented one possible building option that is approximately 31,000 sq. ft. The floor plan included office space, maintenance workspace and large equipment storage.

During the March 7 discussion, as a possible way to reduce building costs, the commissioners questioned the need for office support staff to be under the same roof as the maintenance staff.

“There is something about being next to the people,” Schroeder responded. “I would find it very difficult to be separated from the (maintenance) staff.”

Pogodzinski came to Schroeder’s defense. He indicated there is a greater chance for miscommunication and improper documentation, if staff were to be housed in different locations.

Acknowledging that technology would allow for a staff reconfiguration, Schroeder had doubts about its overall efficiency. “For me, I just don’t see how that’s going to work out.”

Some Minnesota counties currently operate Highway Departments with office staff and maintenance staff housed at different sites.

Pogodzinski advised the commissioners to contact those other counties “to see how it’s going.”

Financial hardships plague fair

Houston County Fair Board secretary Emily Johnson presented the fair’s 2016 financial report to the commissioners.

“Year-end isn’t great,” she said. “We have scrounged, but it pretty much puts us at zero dollars going forward.”

According to Johnson, from Oct. 2015 through Sept. 2016, the organization’s income totaled nearly $174,800. Meanwhile, its expenses came in at more than $183,500 – leaving the fair board more than $8,700 in the red.

Finance director Lapham explained the county had paid its 2017 appropriation of $20,000 in January to the fair board (which was increased from $18,000 to $20,000 in 2009).

She added that an additional $4,000 is available in 2017 – classified as matching funds – which could be paid once the commissioners review the fair board’s financial report (after the August fair) later this fall.

These new monies were approved last September when the fair board asked to have its annual appropriation increased.

At that time, the board also decided to waive the remaining $6,000 left of a $20,000 loan given to the fair in 2007 to recover from the massive flood damage on its fairgrounds.

The fair had been having its appropriations reduced by $2,000 per year since 2010 to recoup that $20,000 advance.

“I would like to the fair stand on its own,” commented Zmyewski. “It’s easy to come in and ask for money.”

Johnson said the 21-member fair board had recently sent out sponsorship letters to Houston County business owners. She added that they would be making appeals to the 17 townships in the county. Last year, she noted all 17 made a donation – ranging from $150 to $1,000.

Miller suggested that the fair board might receive larger donations if they were sought out in-person, rather than by mail. He also strongly encouraged the use of in-kind donations to cover project-specific costs.

“It’s important that this revenue stream be addressed,” Miller stated. “There are a lot of other wants in the county.”

Johnson invited the commissioners to attend the next fair board meeting, which was scheduled for Sunday, March 19.

Technology needs discussed

Information Systems director Andy Milde reviewed a number of quotes for computer-related purchases.

“We try to stretch the life out as long as possible,” Milde explained. “This list is a need.”

The hardware component of that list totaled nearly $32,700 while the software side came in at around $53,400 – bringing the final figure to right around $86,100.

Milde stressed that all of the proposed purchases were discussed during the 2017 budgeting process.

The board gave Milde the OK to follow through with the purchases.

Assessor to retire on March 31

Commissioners approved the retirement of county assessor Thomas Dybing effective March 31.

In his retirement letter to the board, Dybing wrote, “It has been a pleasure working with the employees in Houston County, the township officers, city council members and the property owners.”

Board members thanked Dybing for his nearly 23 years of service.

They gave HR director Tess Arrick-Kruger the go-ahead to begin the search for a new assessor.

Other matters addressed

During the board’s nearly three-hour meeting, additional items came before the board.

Economic Development Authority (EDA) director Courtney Bergey presented recent amendments to the EDA’s enabling resolution and bylaws.

The commissioners accepted the changes, which consistently define the EDA as a seven-member advisory panel.

The board approved renewing two emergency management-related service contracts – with – IPAWS and CodeRed – as presented by Sheriff Mark Inglett.

The sheriff also presented the commissioners with the department’s 2016 annual report. Look for a summary of the report in next week’s Herald.

Commissioners authorized hiring Audrey Staggemeyer as the WIC program coordinator, effective March 8. This is a .07 FTE (28 hrs./wk.) Public Health position with an hourly age of $25.85.

The board approved an interim use permit for a temporary farm dwelling to be located in Brownsville Township. The county’s Planning Commission recommended the permit be granted following a public hearing on Feb. 23.

It allows Shawn Kiecker of Winona to construct a transportable “tiny home” inside a planned greenhouse to be built on property owned by the Lois Davy Farm Family Trust.

The county board did not meet on March 14 (the second Tuesday). Its next regular meeting is Tuesday, March 21, at 5:30 p.m. in the Historic Houston County Courthouse in Caledonia.