By Craig Moorhead

The Caledonia Argus

Houston County commissioners approved $583,882 in CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Business Relief Grant payments on Tuesday, Sept. 8.

The Houston County EDA had reviewed grant applications received by Sept. 1, and recommended approval of 120 of those during the first week of September. Commissioners then voted unanimously to fund all 120. 

The bulk of the applications were from the first round of the grant program, while 23 of those approved were part of a second round. That second round of applications remains open until Oct. 2. 

“The grant program has now been broadened to include more businesses, so eligible Houston County businesses include registered or licensed state businesses in good standing, non-profits with a physical brick and mortar location and at least one paid employee, and sole proprietors who can provide a Schedule C tax return,” EDA director Allison Wagner reported.

The board also reviewed three conditional use permit (CUP) applications, approving all after some  discussions. All three allowed the construction of cabins in an agricultural district. 

The first was for Joe and Laurie Bolduan to build a structure in Union Township, while the second went to James and Audra Wieser to build in Yucatan Township. Those were found to meet all of the criteria, and were quickly passed. 

The third, (for Eric and Amy Wink to build a cabin in Caledonia Township) took much longer to settle. In all, commissioners voted three times on items related to the document, two of which addressed the findings of fact which the Houston County Planning Commission  (PC) forwarded from a public hearing on the matter. 

When the Wink CUP application was brought before PC, that panel recommended denial, citing failure to meet the criteria, which requires that “The soil conditions are adequate to accommodate the proposed use.” 

But the county board noted (by a 3-2 vote) that an erosion control plan for the site being developed by the Root River Soil and Water Conservation District would remedy that situation. The slope of the site was one of the chief concerns raised by the PC. 

The second vote (5-0) affirmed that the proposed use will conform to the county’s Land Use Plan without requiring a variance for the steep slope, while the third granted (by 4-1 vote) the CUP with  five conditions (including filing and adhering to the aforementioned erosion control plan, and re-grading a lane). Wink will also need to pay a tripled zoning fee for beginning the cabin project without a permit.

A contentious Planning Commission hearing on the Wink CUP also spawned some additional fallout when the topic was brought to the county board. 

Citing comments made by PC members Rich Schild and Wayne Feldmeier during the Wink hearing, Commissioner Greg Myhre (who also serves on the PC) made a motion to remove both from the panel and seek replacements for the remainder of their terms. 

“From a legal perspective, all of the members of the Planning Commission serve at the pleasure of the board,” county administrator Jeff Babinski reported. “You are able to remove them as you wish, with or without cause...”

The board noted that a “swear word” had been spoken, and Myhre objected to various statements made at the hearing from an ethical standpoint, adding that “It was just uncalled for.” 

Commissioner Teresa Walter also noted “very inappropriate” behavior, but suggested censure rather than expulsion. Commissioner Eric Johnson asked for permission to speak to both members on the matter, which was granted by consensus. 

Finally, Myhre’s motion died for lack of a second. The PC could operate with five members, but now hosts seven. 

Later, another motion also died for lack of a second, when a proposal to implement seven banding position adjustments for certain county positions recommended by an Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. study was put forward. Under the findings, some positions would have qualified for wage increases from placement in a higher band, while others would be assigned to a lower classification and the employees’ pay frozen until step increases could catch up to the recommended lower banding. 

The board later voted 3-2 to implement a compensation study on both wages and health benefits from David Drown Associates. The reported cost will be $21,750.

Commissioners also voted to approve up to $25,000 in CARES Act funds to replace the west entrance door on the historic courthouse with a sliding entry door and “modified drop boxes.”

Several personnel items were approved with a single “consent agenda” vote. Those included the hire of Kimberly Rommes and Helen Olson as case aides in the Public Health and Human Services Department, the hire of Adolphus (Brad) White as a 67-day casual/temporary employee in the Veterans Service Department, the hire of Josh Erickson as a  67-day casual/temporary employee (drop-site supervisor), the resignation of probationary deputy auditor-treasurer Nicole Ranzenberger, and the search for a replacement for that position.

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