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Legislators meet with County Board

Fri, Jun 27th, 2008
Posted in Government

PRESTON - Representative Ken Tschumper and Senator Sharon Ropes discussed state legislative accomplishments and disappointments with the county board at their June 24 meeting. Tschumper maintained that with the Transportation Bill passed in February there will be some accelerated projects in District 6 in southeast Minnesota, especially bridge rehabilitation or replacement. Fillmore County will receive an additional $14 million. Commissioner Duane Bakke thanked them for their vote on the transportation package.

Tschumper noted in a letter dated May 19 that Governor Pawlenty has vetoed nearly 80 bills in the last two years. He warned that the state could be facing a $2-4 billion deficit in the next biennium. Tschumper noted that with the tax bill there will be $42 million in new Local Government Aid (LGA) and $22 million in new County Aid. There will be local government levy limits of 3.9% for the next three years with some exceptions. Renewal of Township Aid was stopped.

Flooding Update

Ken Tschumper asked about the county's funds for debris removal resulting from the August 2007 floods. Chairman Randy Dahl said that Fillmore County is still concentrating on residential debris removal as the damage was concentrated in the Rush Creek valley. He added that funds are still available and that at a later date agricultural land debris removal may be looked at.

Tschumper noted that Houston County has exhausted their funds partially because no limits were set on the dollars for the removal of a home. Commissioner Marc Prestby suggested that about two months before the final deadline, they would consider looking at the limit if funds are still available.

Dahl discussed the recertification of the levees. He expects they will need to hire someone to do that. Because of the possible liability, the cost of doing the recertification could be high. Tschumper asked about the flood plain designation in Rushford. Dahl noted that it will be part of the certification process. The mitigation plan is expected to be complete in August.

Tschumper added that with the early June 2008 flooding Houston and Fillmore Counties will qualify for federal funding for public infrastructure damages. It is still an unknown if the private sector will qualify. Senator Sharon Ropes implied that if the counties are taken separately, they wouldn't qualify. However, if Fillmore, Houston, Freeborn and Mower were lumped together, the private sector loss may qualify.

Tschumper explained that the governor's office has not committed to a special session. Both legislators expressed a need for a special session. Ropes said that the flooding this year was much less, but still significant. She added that a special session could also address the losses from the tornado in Hugo. Ropes stated that last year everyone in the capital wanted to help. But now with the state's "rainy day" fund spent down in an effort to balance the budget, cuts are probably coming in the next two years.

Brenda Pohlman, Public Health education, said that 35 bacterial water testing kits had been distributed to test for e-coli and coliform bacteria in private wells. Six samples have come back positive. Sixty-six samples were tested for nitrates and twenty-five of those came back with over 10 parts per million, which is considered unsafe especially for infants.

Pohlman reported that septic systems were overloaded in the Granger area. One garage had a sink hole. Four wells collapsed. She added that there are 104 private wells in areas designated by FEMA as a flood plain. This doesn't include those private wells within city limits. About 75% of Fillmore County's population or 12,000 to 16,000 people get their water from a private well.

Damage to wells and septic systems is not recognized by FEMA or the Red Cross as dollar damage to a home. Ropes added that many homes that are located on high ground have well or septic damage. She worried that these home owners are falling through the cracks. Generally, wells and septics were not an issue last year.

Ropes noted that wells and septics are costly and their loss hits homeowners just as hard as flooded basements and flooded first floors. She talked to the Commissioner of Agriculture who was unaware of the exclusion. Ropes wants to get state resources available to help these homeowners.

Commissioner Chuck Amunrud stressed that with the county's mitigation plan people need to be moved out of areas prone to flooding. Tschumper said that a lesson learned from the flooding is the long term value of good zoning and the limits on where one can build. He added that a lot of public money has been spent on recovering from the flood. Ropes suggested that they assess what they learned from the flood and the recovery and create recommendations for the future.

Randy Dahl said that many have rebuilt with aid from last year's flood, but in doing so they have also exhausted their savings. He expects there will be long term social consequences to deal with. Tschumper suggested that one positive will be the better insulated and more energy efficient homes.

Sentence to Serve

Sheriff Daryl Jensen explained that the state cut funding for five counties including Fillmore for the Sentence to Serve (STS) program. He praised the program as a very successful jail program. Jensen maintained that it saved jail space, helps offenders pay fines, and benefits fisheries, forestry, parks, and trails. Jensen expects the state's elimination of the funding for the five counties may actually cost the state more as the state may need to hire workers to accomplish the work now done by the offenders. The STS work crews were especially helpful in the aftermath of the 2007 floods in Rushford.

Jensen said that the program will have funds through September. He thanked Bakke for getting a group together of DNR department heads to find a solution. He maintained that if they do half of the work for the state with the DNR, then they should pay half of the contract. Bakke noted that the five counties that were sunseting were the only ones effected by the cut. Jensen insisted that this is a corrections program that people approve of, as offenders work off jail time and fines. Amunrud added that offenders need to qualify for the program and are closely supervised. Dahl said that he was discouraged by the cutting of a program that works and saves money.

Jensen hopes that the DNR and the Department of Corrections can juggle some funds to extend the program at least until June 30, 2009, the end of the fiscal year. The state has provided $600,000 for the program. Fillmore County has received $35,000 of that each year.

Other Legislation

Ken Tschumper noted his disappointment with the governor's veto of the default plan for the five county StedFast Health Plan. The governor vetoed the default language because he felt it did not allow for competition. The joint powers board for the five counties has voted to not continue the effort because of the veto. The County Based Purchasing (CBP) plan would have been offered to public health care recipients under MA, GAMC and Minnesota Care. He noted that three other CBP operations already in service have been extremely successful for their clients. The hope was to provide service for public health care and save money which could in turn be used in a preventative effort. Ropes explained that there was massive bipartisan support for the StedFast Plan.

Commissioner Chuck Amunrud expressed a need to establish a reliable revenue source for the EMS program. Currently, funding comes from seat belt fines which isn't reliable. Amunrud sees difficulties in recruitment and finding revenue for training. EMS people are volunteers and not highly paid. Ropes noted that a central function of government is to provide for public safety.

Tschumper worried about the partnership between state and local government. He blamed Governor Pawlenty for breaking up that partnership. Ropes suggested that much of the conflict is between the legislature and the governor, less so between Democrats and Republicans.

County Engineer John Grindeland complained about the $15 million the governor took back from the Office of Aeronautics. He suggested that funds that were needed for projects already in progress should have been dispersed and not held back.

Dahl explained that Fillmore County in an effort to save money for the Fixed Based Operator (FBO) building at the county airport, the county rebid the project. The bid accepted on May 27 from Northland Builders ($163,954.00) was much lower and would have saved money for the state and the county. The time delay put the bid acceptance slightly after the governor took back the funds. Dahl said that he felt betrayed.

Forestville Bridge

Commissioners discussed the closing of the bridge on county 118 in Forestville. Concrete barricades will need to be put up as citizens are moving lighter barricades to drive across the bridge. John Grindeland explained that the bridge has abutment deterioration and decking problems. The bridge is only open to bicycles, pedestrians and horses and is closed to vehicles.

The long term closing of the bridge was discussed. Grindeland said that it has been a ten ton road since 1988. Bakke said that the DNR doesn't want a new bridge with a new alignment. The Historical Society wants the old bridge preserved as it is part of old town. Grindeland maintained that the only way to preserve the bridge is to keep it closed to traffic. Grindeland suggested that the county board would have the authority to give the bridge to the park.

Dahl was concerned about not having a through road there if the bridge were closed permanently. Amunrud suggested that it was best to close it and was waiting for the analysis from DOT.

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