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County board has some big issues to tackle in coming weeks

Tuesday was the meeting of possibilities for the Becker County Board.

While not many decisions were made, many items were discussed and will be back before the board over the next month or so.

Commissioners talked about jail options, timber sales, the motor fleet, the 2015 budget and dealing with aquatic invasive species.

• Jail: Last month, the commissioners said they felt pressure to hurry up and build a new jail because there were no other options. This month though, the options seem to be opening back up.

The county brought in an architect to get a firm answer on if the jail could have a third level or not and it can. County Administrator Jack Ingstad said that the architect reported that the building is sturdy and could support another level.

The architect also said that the building could be gutted and either revamped as a jail or used as offices if the jail should move.

The second option is landowners adjacent to the minimum security jail are willing to sell to the county for building a new pod-style jail.

And yet a third viable option is that Hubbard County, which already houses 10 inmates for Becker County, has agreed to look at the possibility of housing all of Becker County’s inmates.

“Everything is back on the table now,” Ingstad said.

• Timber sales: A group of people led by Ruth Bergquist and Willis Mattson asked the county to hold off on holding timber sales for one year so a plan could be put in place.

One of the main reasons they asked to speak and are requesting a forest plan is because of the dramatic shift to aspen trees in the county.

“We’re losing diversity and going to a single species — aspen. And is that what we want,” Mattson questioned.

Many years ago, Minnesota had only 2 to 5 percent aspen trees. That number has now shifted to 30 percent in Minnesota and 60 percent in Becker County, the group said.

“Our past practices have largely been driven by commercial goals of industry and value for hunting select species such as deer and grouse,” Mattson said. “We are suggesting a broader look at additional values.”

Bergquist and Mattson asked the commissioners to preserve all options for at least a year until a plan could be put in place because once the trees are cut, all options are lost. But by waiting a year to cut, the trees could still be cut in a year is that’s the final decision.

When asked what the down side of holding off would be, Mattson said it would primarily be the loggers who earn their income by logging the land.

Commissioner Larry Knutson said he’d like Mattson and Bergquist and those they represent to come back to the county board with suggestions for a plan. He asked them to include not only cutting or not cutting, but also cutting some portions of the county land and not others.

“I think we’re supplementing this. I don’t think it works on a small scale how we do it,” Commissioner Ben Grimsley said of logging.

He added that the county should be more concerned with land recreation than logging.

“There are a lot of valid points here,” Commissioner Don Skarie added.

The group plans to bring back numbers and suggestions to the county board at a September meeting.

• Motor pool fleet: One way the county is looking at saving on costs is by contracting with Enterprise to provide the county’s motor fleet.

The vehicle rental company is getting into the business of working with counties, assisting with the motor fleet and providing services at a much lower cost than it’s costing counties to have their own vehicles and reimbursing mileage.

Service and maintenance to a vehicle would be built into the contract price with Enterprise and the county would no longer have to worry about servicing its own vehicles.

Also, when an employee has to drive their vehicle to another location for work purposes, the county reimburses them for mileage. That mileage is usually at the federal rate, which is more than gas prices and takes into consideration the wear and tear on the personal vehicle.

With the new program of using a county vehicle, the person would be reimbursed just for mileage, and it would be at a much lower rate because the wear and tear to the vehicle is no longer to their personal vehicle.

The commissioners directed Ingstad to get numbers and a plan from Enterprise to make sure the county wants to go this route.

• Budget priorities: Still in the preliminary stages, Becker County is working on its 2015 budget.

Ingstad said that there are no levy limits next year for the county, and the state is not giving any additional county program aid.

Revenue assumptions for 2015 include roughly $18.5 million in levy, $1.3 million from county program aid, $2 million in transportation tax, $315,000 in AIS funding, $2.7 million in a transfer station bonding bill and $44.7 million in new construction.

Some of the added expenditures for 2015 include $500,000 in personnel pay increases and $150,000 in inmate housing at Hubbard County.

Ingstad has been working with department heads to see what priorities the county has in each department. Some include decisions on the jail, redesigning the natural resource management department, motor fleet services and SMART public meeting to determine upcoming road projects.

Other items that need to be discussed include staffing and space needs, telecommuting policy, solid waste assessment, litigation costs, public works facility and document management.

Ingstad should have a preliminary levy for the commissioners at the Sept. 12 meeting, and the final budget will be adopted Dec. 16.

Until then though, Ingstad said that he is posting the budget progress on the county’s website as he goes so the public can see what’s going on and the county can be a transparent as possible.

• Aquatic invasive species: With the county getting about $143,000 this year in state funding for the fight of AIS, the county has approved the purchase of a portable decontamination unit.

Other uses of the money were discussed — like more education and the county being in charge of those working at the lake accesses, but no decisions were made. A more detailed plan will be brought before the board in the future.

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.