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Commissioners continue budget and levy discussion

Cook County Court House and government offices
Cook County Court House and government offices

There was a meeting of the Cook County Board of Commissioners Tuesday, Nov. 28. The following discussion and action items occurred during Tuesday’s meeting.
Public Comment
There was just one person who spoke during the public comment period of Tuesday’s meeting. Local resident Arvis Thompson addressed the board about her concerns over data and information the county uses when making decisions about spending tax dollars. Specifically, Thompson said the number of people living in poverty in Cook County could be inaccurate compared to information that was shared publicly. Thompson also challenged the commissioners to spend tax dollars locally and in ways that benefit the county. And while Thompson was the only person who spoke Tuesday, during Monday night’s Truth in Taxation meeting there were dozens of comments made to the commissioners about local property taxes.
Pat Eliasen
Moving into action items from Tuesday’s meeting, Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen was recognized for his statement against racist bullying in Cook County. The Sheriff originally drafted the statement in a letter Oct. 3, following a number of incidents of racial harassment that occurred in the community.

“Never has racism been okay, but in this day and age, there is especially no place for it in society and certainly not in our community,” the Sheriff wrote.

The County Board voted to support the sheriff’s statement and will begin to implement it as county policy through various committees and as a part of its strategic plan for the future.
The other action item involving the sheriff’s department was a request to hire an architect firm to research what needs Cook County has for a new jail facility. The County Board voted 5-0 to hire the Twin Cities based WOLD Architects and Engineers at the price of $45,975 to complete a jail needs assessment and jail facility development plan in Cook County.

In previous meetings the commissioners, county administrator and Sheriff Eliasen have referred to a possible justice center for the community, which would include a much larger jail, new courthouse and new offices for the sheriff’s department and county attorney.

The WOLD firm has an extensive history of building such facilities in Minnesota, including nearly all county buildings and jails in Hennepin, Ramsey and Carlton counties, among more than a dozen other counties throughout the state. The firm was selected among five original possibilities to craft a design plan for a new justice center in Cook County, should the firm decide that is the direction the county should take.

Eliasen said hiring this firm will not increase the budget of the sheriff’s department, as there were savings in the budget due to a decrease in staff payments.

The action the board approved Tuesday is not to start building a new county jail or justice center, Sheriff Eliasen pointed out. Rather, this is a feasibility study that the design firm will do to present options to Cook County that could work and for what reasons. The study will likely be completed in spring 2018.
Diane Booth
In more county discussion focused on facilities, Diane Booth from the community center brought forward two bonding requests. Booth made a request for a new playground at the cost of approximately $183,000.

The second bonding request was to expand the parking area near the community center by adding a gravel parking lot at the cost of approximately $23,000.

Booth said there is a possibility of grant funding offsetting the costs for these projects. However, in order to secure any grant funds the community center board needs to know funds are secured before moving forward with the project. In addition, there was discussion about the status of the land around the community center being designated as a park and how that would impact the ability to seek grant funding

The board voted 5-0 to approve a potential bonding request which would allow staff to seek grant funding for the community center and to designate the area as a community park.
Also Tuesday, County Administrator Jeff Cadwell shared an update on the search for the next highway engineer for Cook County.  
At last week’s county board meeting Cadwell said there were two interviews for the Cook County Highway Engineer and that one candidate was selected. Cadwell said a job offer would be extended to that individual as soon as possible. Cadwell said he was hoping to have a response from the candidate selected by Nov. 27, but did not hear back. Cadwell said the highway committee might have to reconvene and conduct another round of interviews or reconsider how to coordinate the highway engineer position.
DNR Lands
Staff from the Department of Natural Resources office in Tower who specialize in purchasing private land in northeastern Minnesota for designation as Scientific and Natural Areas spoke to the board on Tuesday. The land discussed Tuesday that will be designated as an ‘SNA’ focuses on two plots near Hovland. One transfer of private land that will now be managed as an SNA is a 40-acre addition to Spring Beauty Northern Hardwoods and the other is 80-acres near Myhr Creek Ridge. These lands can now be used for a variety of public purposes, including hunting.

Commissioner Myron Bursheim questioned that at some point the county should consider transferring private land to state and federal agencies and impacts that could make on the local tax base.

Following that discussion, Commissioner Doo-Kirk made a motion to deny the resolution. There was no second on the motion.
Commissioner Bobby Deschampe made a motion to support the land sale, with Commissioner Bursheim making a second.
Budget discussion
Near the end of Tuesday’s meeting, the commissioners and county administrator talked at length about the 2018 county budget. This followed Monday night’s Truth in Taxation meeting and months of discussion about the budget. Prior to any action on the levy, the commissioners discussed funding the EDA, public library, local fire departments and various non-mandated funding requests.

Regarding the EDA budget, Commissioners Deschampe and Storlie questioned the value of certain projects the EDA would like to pursue in 2018, namely a sign for the golf course in Lutsen. After discussing the value of advertising and a new sign to promote the updated course at Superior National, the commissioners voted to approve the EDA budget on a 4-1 count, with Commissioner Deschampe voting against.

The commissioners discussed at length various non-mandated funding requests, including funds for Birch Grove School in Tofte, Higher Ed., Cooperation Station and other local non-profits and service organizations. After a lengthy discussion, the County Board voted 5-0 to approve non-mandated funding requests in the total amount of $147,300. This amount excludes a $10,000 request from Cooperation Station for funding.

With regard to the overall budget, County Administrator Jeff Cadwell explained that cutting costs does not balance the budget. That is why any changes to the proposed levy should have the understanding of what it means to cut programs, services, staff and purchases the county needs, Cadwell said.
Commissioner Deschampe brought forward several requests that could cut costs from the 2018 budget. One option Deschampe cited was to remove setting aside a reserve fund of $270,000 for the highway department that would be used to buy equipment for the highway department should they need to make such purchases. The board and county staff discussed the value of having reserve funds to replace aging or failing equipment rather than having to spend money from other sources on an as-needed basis.

“The reality is that line-iteming expenses does not balance the budget,” Cadwell said.

The commissioners also discussed using money from the reserve fund to offset the levy increase in 2018. Auditor-Treasurer Braidy Powers stressed the value of maintaining a healthy reserve fund to be prepared for federal and state deficits, as well as maintain a strong bond rating. 

At the conclusion of the budget talks, the commissioners agreed to table a vote on setting the levy until their next meeting, which is scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 12.
To hear more about Tuesday’s meeting of the commissioners, including an interview with WTIP’s Joe Friedrichs and Commissioner Ginny Storlie, listen to audio below.