July 9, 2020

Stevens County Times

Your spot for community news in Stevens County, Minnesota

County courthouse could be open for regular business on June 22

by Nick Ripperger, Chokio Review

The Stevens County courthouse could be open again to the public without an appointment if nothing happens between now and June 22 that would cause the commissioners to rethink their plans.

For more than two months most county employees have been working from home when possible, with only a handful of “essential” personnel, including law enforcement and building maintenance, coming into the courthouse to conduct business that could be done only there.

Such has been the impact of COVID-19 in a county that has barely felt its direct effects.

Due in part to Gov. Tim Walz’s easing of the cautionary restrictions that have been in place in an effort to minimize the spread of the virus, the county commissioners got together in person for their June 2 meeting, still observing social distancing protocol.  Some other participants still did so remotely.

Emergency Management Director Dona Greiner reported that nothing of much consequence had to be addressed over the past week or so, as she and her preparedness partners continue to brace for what still could be an influx of the disease at some point in the future.  Among other things, they are still collecting personal protective equipment from whatever sources they can obtain them.

She noted that the number of cases of COVID-19 has slowly been increasing in surrounding counties but there had been only one death reported, in Swift County.  Stevens again has one reported case, presumably not the same person who previously had been reported as a Stevens County resident then determined to be living elsewhere.  Greiner speculated that there are probably more cases in the county that have not yet been diagnosed.

As restrictions are slowly being lifted, she still urged residents to continue to follow the guidelines meant to reduce the chances of contracting and/or spreading the disease.  She also encouraged those businesses that are completely or partially open to follow state guidelines on safety practices.

Finally, she complimented those who have continued to work during the “stay at home” period to maintain basic services.  “They’re doing an awesome job,” said Greiner.

County Coordinator Becky Young told the commissioners that most of the courthouse employees have or will shortly return to their normal work environment in anticipation of the June 22 reopening date. She asked the commissioners if they wanted to change that date to earlier or later, but they opted to continue with the plan in place.

Up until now, members of the public have had to call first to arrange an appointment to conduct business in person at the courthouse, but beginning June 22 people will be able to walk in off the street as they have in the past.  Everyone will be asked to wear a protective face covering but it will not be mandatory.

If the court system has a different timetable, the county will work with it to coordinate as much as possible to make accommodations.

In another matter indirectly connected to  COVID-19, Auditor/Treasurer Stephanie Buss reported that the first half collection of property taxes due May 15 had gone very well.  She didn’t know offhand how many taxpayers had missed the deadline, but she asked the commissioners’ advice on how to deal with 10 or so payments that had a May 16 postmark.  She said that at least half of those taxpayers had contacted her to say that they had dropped their payment in the mail on the 15th, but those living in small towns or on rural routes might not have realized their envelope wouldn’t necessarily be postmarked that same day.

Commissioner Donny Wohlers advocated to waive the late penalty for those 10, saying it was likely they were observing the “stay at home” directive and had assumed that because the post office had their mail, in its possession, it would be postmarked that day at that post office.

Commissioner Ron Staples suggested extending the penalty-free deadline until July 15, while Commissioner Neil Wiese suggested reducing the penalty percentage.

As the tax deadline was approaching, the commissioners had contemplated postponing or reducing the late payment penalty out of concern that some individuals or businesses might be hard-pressed due to a job loss or forced closing.  Extending the deadline had been discussed but was not acted on.

Buss related that no one who had paid late, claimed they were unable to afford the payment, however, and the board eventually agreed to waive the penalty on payments postmarked May 16, and only if it was due to COVID.

Organics recycling program to move ahead?

Environmental Services Coordinator Bill Kleindl told the board that the state Pollution Control Agency has $1 million in grant money for organic recycling and composting programs that meet “best practices” criteria.  The minimum grant is $150,000 with a maximum of $250,000, and would require a 25 percent cash or in-kind match from the grantee.

Half of the county’s solid waste currently is sent to Pope-Douglas Solid Waste in Alexandria, with the other half going to a landfill near Gwinner, North Dakota.  Pope-Douglas is planning to construct an organics transfer station this summer near Hoffman, the material from which will be initially sent on to St. Cloud, but eventually will be processed at the site.

Organic waste typically makes up about 30 percent of all solid waste and is particularly hard to burn in the Pope-Douglas incinerator which provides steam energy to nearby institutions.

If Stevens County were to get a grant, it would allow the county to implement an organics program which presumably first would engage large producers of organic waste such as restaurants, schools, and the hospital, and later engage the public at large.

The grant period would run from January 1, 2021, through June 30, 2024.  Staples asked where the money to continue to run the program would come from after the grant runs out.

Kleindl and Young said there would be cost savings compared to the way things work now, but it would be difficult to quantify how much.  For example, removing organics from other solid waste would reduce the overall volume and therefore tipping, or acceptance, fees both at Pope-Douglas and Gwinner.  There would be a separate tipping fee for organics, but it would be less than the current fees.

There definitely would be a cost to implement and continue an organics program, said Kleindl, with Young adding, “Recycling has never been free.”  Both hoped to engage the university, which already has it own organic recycling system, so both entities could benefit.

The board gave Kleindl the go-ahead to apply for the grant without specifying a dollar amount.

Other business

• The board gave preliminary approval to Riley Bros. Construction to implement improvements to County Ditch 18.  Riley Bros. was the lower of two bidders on both options that are being considered.

Option 1 would entail using specialized plastic drainage tile, while Option 2 would use concrete tile.  Riley’s Option 1 bid was $2.63 million and its Option 2 bid was $3.32 million  The engineer’s estimates were $3.37 million and $3.58 million respectively. The board will make the formal awarding at its June 16 meeting and will decide which option to implement at that time.

• The July 7 board meeting will be fully open to the public.  Attendees are encouraged to wear face coverings.