What initially appeared to be a straightforward, non-controversial request from the city of Morris turned into a platform one Stevens County commissioner used to air some grievances he has had with the city.
During the course of the May 5 Stevens County board meeting, Morris city manager Blaine Hill requested that the county sign a quit-claim deed relinquishing the county’s mineral rights on the airport property.
He related that in September of 1930, the county deeded to the city the property which contained what was then the county-owned airport. The city became the owner of the airport, and has maintained that ownership since then.
The deed at that time contained a clause that the county would retain the mineral rights to whatever valuable minerals might lie beneath the land. Hill said that was a common practice in many land transfers at that time.
With a planned extension of the runway on the horizon, the city intends to apply for a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration to pay for most of the cost. When the FAA became involved, Hill said, the agency wanted to make sure all the ‘T’s were crossed and ‘I’s dotted regarding the city’s ownership of the land. The fact that the county still has mineral rights on the land was a third-party tie to the land that the FAA didn’t want, Hill said.
As a result, in preparation for the grant application, the city of Morris was looking to the county to give up those rights so there would be no actual or potential encumbrances on the property.
When County Coordinator Becky Young noted that the proposed quit-claim deed referenced a financial con-sideration from the city not to exceed $3,000, she asked Hill if the city actually intended to pay the county anything for its waiving of the mineral rights.
Hill said the city was not intending to pay the county anything for the waiver.
When commissioner Ron Staples asked why the $3,000 amount was even included in the deed, County Attorney Aaron Jordan explained that any contract requires at least some consideration – a mutual exchange of things of value – to be binding. He did not indicate where the $3,000 amount came from, nor did Hill.
Hill reiterated that the city did not intend to pay the county anything, saying that the city already owns the land and that removing the county’s mineral rights on land that has no valuable minerals was merely cleaning up the city’s title to it.
Staples didn’t think it was as simple as that.
“If the county gives up the mineral rights, will the city put in water to the [new county] highway garage?” he asked.
“There are no minerals,” Hill responded.
“If we’re talking mineral rights, we’re negotiating,” said Staples.
Hill said that the question of whether the city would install water service to the new highway garage, when it is built, continues to be a matter of discussion between the city and the county.
“It makes no sense for the county to build a new garage and not have water there,” he told Staples.
“I’ll vote for this when you guys will pay for putting water to the garage,” Staples responded.
Hill said that wouldn’t be a fair negotiation since the county was giving up nothing of value.
Staples implied that there was something of value involved since the city can’t move forward with the airport project unless the county relinquishes its mineral rights.
“If [the county board] wants to stop the whole project, that’s your prerogative,” said Hill. He continued, “This is a very important project for the city and the county. The idea that you would hold off giving up a mineral right that you have never had any intention of using and no intent to utilize in the future – just on principle?”
Staples then expanded on what he characterized as a pattern the city of Morris has had of shifting what had been city tax expenses to the county tax base, which consists mostly of agricultural land owners. He cited as examples the county’s takeover of the two Housing and Redevelopment Authorities and the emergency management system.
Hill didn’t see it that way. “We are part of the county,” he said.
“I understand that,” Staples replied.
Hill continued, “We’re one of the biggest parts of the county, and yet you wouldn’t support us on something as simple as this? I don’t understand it. I thought this was a pretty easy slam dunk, but obviously there’s some tension between at least some commissioners and the city.
“We did the countywide emergency management because we’re part of the county, like Alberta, Chokio, and Hancock. We’re all part of the county.”
Staples replied, “All I’m asking for is some financial assistance to get water to the highway garage instead of us paying the whole bill.”
Hill said that that was still being discussed, but was a separate issue.
After the exchange ended, Staples, apparently believing his point had been made, made a motion to agree to the quit claim deed as presented. Jeanne Ennen seconded it, and it passed unanimously.
County begins planning for courthouse reopening
Coordinator Young suggested to the board that it was time to prepare for the courthouse’s reopening, particularly if the governor’s “stay at home” directive expires on May 18 in response to COVID-19.
She said the county’s strat-egy would depend in large part on the number of cases in the county and how it was spreading. Stevens County was one of the last COVID-free counties in the state until the first case was reported last week.