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County board hears assortment of public comments in busy meeting

County logo. WTIP file photo
County logo. WTIP file photo

There was a meeting of the Cook County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, May 14. The following discussion and action items occurred during this week’s meeting.

Public Comment
The meeting started with the standard public comment period. Local resident Mike Larson shared his thoughts and concerns about a known member of the polygamous sect of FLDS church that recently purchased property on Pike Lake Road. Larson said the person who purchased the property, Seth Jeffs, is a known criminal and his presence in the county is troubling because of his criminal history and background, not because of his religion.

There is a town hall meeting for community members on Saturday, May 18, at 9 a.m. to discuss the arrival of the FLDS church and Seth Jeffs in Cook County. The event will take place at the community center in Grand Marais. Larson asked if the commissioners and other county officials could attend the meeting and ask questions of two people from Utah who are coming to the town hall meeting to share information on the FLDS church.

Arvis Thompson also spoke during the Tuesday meeting. Thompson shared her concerns about ongoing and proposed construction at the YMCA, including asbestos that was found in the bathroom tile. Commissioner Heidi Doo-Kirk said the asbestos was from the old section in the facility. Thompson also shared concerns about other construction projects the county is considering, including roofing projects on the courthouse and other plans to upgrade or repair the local YMCA. Later in the meeting, local resident Brad Thompson also shared concerns about YMCA funding.

“When is this going to stop?” Arvis Thompson said of the YMCA projects and expenses.

Donna Lunke also spoke during this week’s board meeting. Lunke said she was concerned about the county’s policy regarding taping public meetings, which was an agenda item for later in the meeting. Lunke encouraged the board to tape all public meetings and to make a decision and stick with it.

Local resident Nick Burger also spoke during the public comment period, noting that the resignation of the county’s public information officer and emergency services coordinator, Valerie Marasco, could be a means for the county to save money. Burger thanked Marasco for her hard work with the county, but said the county might consider not filling the public information officer position and combining the emergency services position with Lake County, similar to the highway engineer positon.

Also addressing the county board Tuesday was local resident Ben Peters. He suggested not rehiring the position of retiring deputy Julie Collman from the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. Peters said the county should not fill that position as it was created to assist the city of Grand Marais when their local police force merged with the sheriff’s department. As the city is budgeting for a number of projects, none of which focus on public safety, the county should not continue to fund this deputy position, Peters said. 

Also speaking during Tuesday’s public comment period were Lloyd Speck and Gordon Salisbury. Speck voiced concerns over county spending and the current county administrator. He said increasing property taxes have caused some local residents to move away from the community.

Soil and Water Funding
To start the meeting, Cook County Soil and Water Conservation District Manger Ilena Hansel shared an update with the board. Hansel shared information on a number of projects the local soil and water district accomplished in recent years, as well as projects and goals for 2019 and beyond.

Hansel also said soil and water conservation districts across the state are facing potential changes to how they are funded. Hansel said the conservation district board is following this topic closely at the Capitol and budget discussions within the Legislature.

Assessor’s Office
Cook County Assessor Todd Smith shared information with the commissioners about a tax court abatement involving Great River Energy. Smith said Great River Energy was involved in a lawsuit with the state over land values on property where they have utilities on right of ways. Many counties across the state were involved with this, Smith said, including Cook County. All told, Smith said the county will lose approximately $60,000 in property taxes as a result of this lawsuit. There were seven properties in the county that came under question with regard to these tax abatements.

Commissioner Dave Mills asked if local residents will see a reduction of $60,000 on combined utility bills as a result of this. Smith did not indicate that would be a likely outcome.

Cook County Auditor Treasurer Braidy Powers said there will be a direct impact to the fund balance as a result of this lawsuit.

County Procedures
At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, the county board had a lengthy discussion about how the county board functions, records meetings and public data, shares information with the public and the overall focus of the county board. The procedural policy is based off of a template from Scott County in the southern metro area. 

Included in this discussion is when and what type of board meetings are video recorded. The board indicated they would continue recording all regular meetings on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month, as they are currently. There was no decision specific to recording workshops, including committee of the whole meetings.  Commissioner Myron Bursheim said the county board has more homework to complete before making a decision on adopting the procedural policy.

As the discussion on the procedures policy for the county board took a significant amount of time, the board voted to table the conversation until their next regular meeting on May 28.