By Craig Moorhead

The Caledonia Argus

At their last meeting of 2019, Houston County commissioners set their 2020 budget and certified the tax levy payable in the coming year. The December 17 session also included news in the battle to slow or stop the spread of gypsy moths within the county, and more.

The board voted to reduce the levy increase from the 5% bump which was proposed in September to 3%, with members noting that $187,000 in income from the sale of 22 acres of county-owned land will more than balance any shortfall on the revenue side of the budget. The levy stands at $13,947,052, with the payable portion (net levy) reduced to $12,854,318 by County Program Aid which, which will total $1,092,734. 

The entire budget for 2020 was approved as well, totaling $29,996,021.

Chris Mickelson, a municipal financial adviser with Ehlers & Associates (Roseville, Minn.) brought a proposal for Houston County to refinance some 2009 and 2010 bonds. Given current interest rates, an estimated $82,154 in savings over the next five years could be expected, he said. After making sure that all bond bids can be rejected, and the county could then back out of the offering at no cost, the board voted to move forward with the process. Mickelson said that the bond sale is expected to take place on Monday, January 13, with commissioners voting to accept or reject an offer the following day (which is currently scheduled as a work-group session).

Marissa Streifel, an entomologist with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA), told the board about efforts to curb or destroy an infestation of gypsy moths within Houston County. An area to the southwest of the City of Hokah comprising 1921 acres will be treated in May with a biological insecticide called Btk (Bacillus thuringiensis kurstaki) which, according to the MDA, is “a naturally occurring bacterium that is found in the soil.”  The same document states that the material is commonly used on commercial and organic food crops, and “If you eat fresh fruits and vegetables, you probably have already ingested this bacterium.”

Union Ridge Drive crosses the center of the treatment area.

Streifel said that two applications will be carefully timed to target gypsy moth caterpillars which are actively feeding, at a time of year before other caterpillars (such as most butterflies) are present. Ultraviolet light breaks down the agent within seven days, she added. Residents will get a bulletin on the plan in the mail, and there will also be a public open house in February to answer questions, as well as press releases and a legal notice provided to local newspapers.

“It’s here, it’s reproducing, (and) we’ve found egg masses, so that’s what’s triggering the Btk treatment,” Streifel stated. “But the goal is eradication with this treatment...”  

In other news, Commissioners accepted a grant from the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs for the Houston County Veterans Service office, which will provide $10,000 to help cover certain eligible expenses. A second grant from the Minnesota Department of Homeland Security was accepted for the county’s Emergency Management Department, totaling $18,480. Finally, the board accepted a donation of $3000 from the Houston County K9 Foundation to go towards the cost of a 2019 canine lease.

Commissioners approved the hire of Beverly Bauer and Arien O’Heron as 67 day temporary technical clerks, effective January 8. A competitive search for the same position was also approved. The resignation of social worker Mallory Van Vin was accepted with thanks “for her service to the residents of Houston County.” A competitive search to fill that position was approved as well. Brady Auger was hired as a probationary jailer/dispatcher, conditioned on the successful completion of a background check.

The board voted to provide an additional $4000 allotment to the Houston County Agricultural Society, since that organization has provided the county with their current financial statement. The funds were contingent upon that requirement.

Commissioners approved the write-off of 64 “uncollectible, delinquent accounts” totaling $63,235. Human Services director John Pugleasa said that the action is a recommended book keeping measure. However, if any of the persons with unpaid accounts turn up, efforts to collect the funds will still occur, he added.

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