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County joins effort to combat youth tobacco use

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

The regular meeting of the Cook County board of commissioners was Tuesday, November 26. Commissioners considered personnel matters, capital improvement projects such as work at the Cook County YMCA, and changes to the county's tobacco ordinance. The meeting started at 8:30 a.m. with a time for public comment.
Two citizens came forward with comments. Commenting first was Mike Hofer, speaking on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources proposal to designate a 4-wheel drive vehicle route through the county, dubbed the Border-to-Border Route, or B-2-B. He expressed concern that the proposal had not had a vigorous enough evaluation and the DNR had not presented the proposal in an unbiased way. 
Hofer said because the B2B proposal does not have adequate, substantiated evidence of the short- and long-term costs and benefits to the county, commissioners should not approve the use of county roads for the touring route. 
The second citizen to speak was Arvis Thompson, who expressed concern about the county board’s plan to proceed with the administrative form of government. She read from materials shared about the administrator’s role. She said this an “awesome power” to place in one person’s hands.
She recommended establishing a probation period for the person who takes this position, to make sure they are a “fit” for the county. 
And, she asked the board to include a county employee on the interview team. Commissioner Heidi Doo-Kirk said the consultant hired to find candidates for the county administrator position is working with department heads.  
Following the public comment period, County Board Chair Ginny Storlie brought up the subject of the “Speak Your Peace Civility Project.” Storlie said she was reminding her colleagues that they all had agreed to follow the Speak Your Peace guidelines not because of any problems, but because she didn’t want to see the resolution they passed forgotten. 
Land Services matters
Land Services Department Director Tim Nelson appeared before the county board to request authorization to add a recycling assistant position to the county staff. 
Nelson said the position basically pays for itself, as the recycle center budget has currently been paying for a temporary person for most of the year.  
Commissioners asked questions of Nelson.  Nelson said although prices on recycled materials fluctuates, the amount of materials being accepted remains consistent. 
The board voted to authorize adding a recycling assistant with a unanimous vote. 
Land Services Director Nelson also gave a brief explanation of the “One Watershed, One Plan” and the county’s past efforts to protect the watershed. The primary purpose of the current plan is to identify and upgrade failing septic systems. 
In the past, Cook County has been doing this work on its own under a Lakeshore Septic Compliance Program, however lack of funding put a halt to the inspections and inventories. The One Watershed, One Plan is a cooperative initiative with Lake County. 
The two counties are eligible for $599,767 toward implementation of the One Watershed, One Plan Workplan. Cook County will receive $130,000 for contract services and $30,000 for county staff time to continue working to implement its sanitary sewer treatment system ordinance. 
Commissioners unanimously moved to approve the 2020 watershed workplan and to accept the funding. 
County Engineer contract renewed
The county board voted unanimously to renew an agreement with Lake County for shared services of County Highway Engineer Krysten Foster. 
Speaking as a peer of the engineer, Rena Rogers, the IT director and, acting county administrator, said Krysten is “a delight to work with.” 
The total cost to Cook County for the shared engineer services is $120,924, which covers the county’s portion of salary, benefits, communications and training, mileage and indirect costs. Administrator Rogers said this is an increase of $7,281.00.
Foster also received kudos from Commissioners Myron Bursheim and Bobby Deschampe for her two years of work in the county. Deschampe especially credited Foster with moving ahead with improvements to Mineral Center Road in Grand Portage, a long overlooked road. 
Capital improvement update
Acting County Administrator Rogers gave an update on three capital improvement projects. 
Rogers said following the county board meeting, she and Community Center Director Diane Booth would be doing a walk-through of the Community Center ice rink warming house to ensure the project was completed as designed. 
Rogers said the Hovland County Highway building is finished and a walk-through to check the punch list for the project will take place soon. 
Finally, work at the Cook County YMCA was completed by the company hired to find and fix problems in the swimming pool area. Rogers said the company found air gaps in the ceiling where the natatorium had not been properly sealed. 
The company also found that the air exchange system was wired incorrectly so half of the system was not working. She said gaining control of the air exchange system had already made a difference. She said the humidity is much better. 
She commended the company for completing this work is within budget and on time. And, she said she is optimistic that with the repairs authorized by the board, the county will see a dramatic impact on utility costs. She said the county may see the money spent on the repairs may be recouped rather quickly. 
Personnel matters
County Human Resources Specialist Pamela Dixon presented two personnel matters. She asked for board approval for the hiring of Kay Burkett as a taxation specialist/payroll clerk at a wage $23.48 per hour. She said Burkett has a background in the field, which recently included work as Tofte township clerk. 
Dixon then shared a letter of resignation, effective December 20, from County Attorney’s Office Administrator Carolina Mitchell, who is moving with her military husband. Mitchell wrote a letter thanking County Attorney Molly Hicken for the experience of public service and for “the culture of respect, self-care, and camaraderie” in the county attorney’s office. 
The board affirmed the resignation with regrets and wished the Mitchell family well. The board also authorized Dixon to advertise to fill the position. 
Another position was approved later in the meeting for a volunteer position on the Grand Marais Library Board. Commissioner Dave Mills asked that applicant Kristina MacPherson, who had a 35-year career as a librarian, primarily at St. Olaf College be appointed. 
T21 hearing
Finally, the county board convened a public meeting regarding a change to the Cook County Tobacco Ordinance which would raise the age for purchase of tobacco products from 18 years old to 21. 
Six people spoke, all in favor of increasing the age to 21. 
Andrea Orest spoke of her own smoking habit, which she said unfortunately, began at 14 years old. She said what allowed her to begin smoking was older friends who purchased cigarettes for her. She said had there been a larger age gap, she may not have ever started smoking and she encouraged the county to make the change. 
Mike Carlson, who said he has never smoked, also said he was strongly opposed to smoking, recalling the horrid coughing of his parents who were smokers and who had poor health. He said if increasing the age prevents one person from smoking, it should be approved. 
Assistant Principal of School District 166, Mitch Dorr, Alison McIntire of Cook County Public Health, and Taylor Blakeman of the American Lung Association all shared startling statistics and anecdotes of youth smoking and vaping habits. 
Tim Carlson, a Grand Marais City Councilor, urged the county board to make the change because “it’s the right thing to do.” He said he is willing to take a similar resolution to the city council for consideration.
The public comment period closed and commissioners had a brief discussion, asking Sheriff Pat Eliasen about enforcement of the ordinance. Sheriff Eliasen said the sheriff’s office would conduct compliance checks with vendors who sell tobacco products, something they have done in the past. 
The only dissenting voice was Commissioner Bobby Deschampe who said he understood the health concerns and said he worried about them, especially regarding vaping. However, he said he has a hard time with “government overreach.” He said he knows of several young people who are 18 who have not yet graduated, but who have signed up for military service. He questioned the fact that these young people can put their lives on the line, but can’t buy a pack of cigarettes. 
Commissioners ultimately passed the resolution to make the change to increase the age for purchase of tobacco to 21.