Becker County’s tax base has grown an average of $60 million in new construction over the last eight years. That helps spread the property tax levy over a larger tax base and helps the county keep next year’s levy hike under 3%, Becker County Board Chairman John Okeson said Tuesday, Dec. 17, in his state of the county speech.
“Becker County is strong financially and we maintain an AA+ Bond rating,” he said.
With the retirement of Administrator Jack Ingstad in January and the hiring of Mike Brethorst in March, service continues at a great pace, Okeson said.
“We have a strong organization that is doing great work and providing services for the people of Becker County,” he said.
Progress continues on a new public works facility, and Okeson said the Highway Department completed a very busy $7.5 million construction season, with 4 miles of reconstruction, 22 miles of pavement reclamation with bituminous surfacing, and 4 miles of bituminous overlays.
Maintenance also had a busy season, with more than 50 miles of sealcoating, many miles of crack sealing, regraveling, aggregate shouldering and over 180 miles of centerline and edge stripping, Okeson said.
“This all comes after a very long and stressful snow and ice season, and as we again head into another,” he added.
“Environmental Services-Solid Waste was very busy,” Okeson said. “This past fall, we had a fire at the new transfer station. We are actively working to reopen the facility and are actively using the old transfer site.”
Recycling continues to increase with improvements to the material recovery sort line. This additional equipment was funded in part by a $200,000 state grant, he said.
The department is launching a pilot project to sort mixed loads of demo to help reduce material sent to the landfill in Fargo, N.D.
“We continue to do shingle grinding, and the material will be used by the county for different projects such as shoulder stabilization,” Okeson said.
The Becker County Sheriff's Office had another busy year with the opening of the new $21 million jail in April.
By year end, deputies will have responded to more than 12,000 calls for service. Because of the continued increase in calls, an additional deputy was added in July, along with the addition of K-9, Durman.
“Very generous donations from the citizens of Becker County were used for his purchase and training,” Okeson said.
The West Central Minnesota Drug and Violent Crime Task Force, which includes members of the sheriff’s office, has been “busy seizing large amounts of meth, heroin and other illegal drugs,” he said.
Planning and Zoning had a milestone accomplishment, Okeson said. “After multiple years of planning and help from the IT Department, they have converted to an online permitting and application process.”
The office handled a busy permitting season, with 879 site permits, 337 new septic and 821 existing septic permits processed, along with addressing 424 complaints, Okeson said.
Land and timber sales, court successes
The county’s land commissioner handled a number of sales this year, with 17 parcels sold for a total of $380,050. Also, two timber auctions were held with 9,507 cords sold for $262,575, he said.
The County Attorney’s Office conducted nine jury trials this year and won nine convictions, with most cases being felonies.
The DWI, Drug and Veterans Courts are doing well, with 11 graduates this past year.
The IT department was kept busy with day-to-day technology tasks “as they continue to upgrade and secure our systems,” Okeson said. The department is responsible for supporting the county’s payroll system, tax system, and Assessor’s Vanguard system, along with over 420 workstations, tablets and laptops countywide. “The addition of the new jail was another major undertaking for the department,” he said. And work continued on upgrading the county’s website, GIS mapping system and Next Generation 911, among other tasks, he said.
This year the Human Services Department has continued to do well, meeting the performance measurements and benchmarks enforced by the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
Human Services has also taken the lead role with the upcoming Becker County Jail Diversion Program, working with county and outside partners to get the program rolling.
“The Human Service staff has worked hard to create a balanced budget and identify cost savings wherever possible,” Okeson said.
The assessor’s office in 2019 contracted to assess four more townships, without adding any staff to cover the workload, Okeson said.
In 2018, the department started a land code clean-up, which was carried over into this year, and will help simplify the land codes and provide a more consistent sales ratio.
The big change in the assessor's office was the retirement of Steve Carlson and the appointment of new County Assessor Lisa Will, with the transition going well, he said.
Parks and rec
Parks and Recreation, along with many partners, created a Master Trail Plan that started in May and was adopted by the County Board in November. “This will aid in future planning and help with securing future grants,” Okeson said.
The county is working with Frazee for a designation of a regional park just adjacent to Frazee, along with help from the National Park Service, he said.
Work continues on the Heartland Trail section between the Detroit Lakes tunnel and Acorn Lake, which is to be bid in December, with the Acorn Lake section presently under construction, and the remaining sections into Frazee in the design stage.
Grant funding was received to improve the trail at Highway 10 and County Road 54 (the Hidden Hills Road) to include the connection to the tunnel as this intersection will be redone with signals in 2020.
Home financing and census counting
Through the Becker EDA, the county has been approved for the Minnesota Cities Participation Program, which will provide at least $100,000 in financing for first-time home buyers and low-income families, Okeson said
Also, the county approved signing onto the Brightfields program, which will assess renewable energy opportunities at the county transfer station and capped landfill site, he added.
In 2019 the county formed a Complete Count Committee for the 2020 Census to improve the local census count. “Accuracy is very vital to the county as it affects many funding and demographic streams for the next 10 years,” Okeson said.
The EDA has approved $10,000 as part of a collaborative of cities and businesses to help locally-employed residents buy a home. “In Becker County, 13 loans were approved within the first two months of the program startup,” Okeson said.
In closing, he thanked “all the dedicated employees, elected officials, administrator, and all the department heads. You have helped to make Becker County a better place to live.”
Okeson gave a special thank you to his fellow commissioners, and asked for “a moment of silence to remember our deceased employee this past year, Dick Goodmanson.”