By Craig Moorhead

The Caledonia Argus

Houston County commissioners met in closed session to discuss a topic related to labor negotiations  on Tuesday, July 6. 

When the meeting resumed, personnel/facilities director Tess Arrick-Kruger reported, “There was a general consensus to accept the pay grid as proposed by DDA (David Drown Associates) for the purpose of negotiations.” 

The DDA wage study could have an important impact on future pay increases for county employees, since recently-accepted labor contracts have left the question of wage increases open for 2022 and 2023.

On a related note, a series of budget amendments were accepted to adjust county payroll figures for the present year. The changes raised that series of line items by $117,205, resulting in a total of $6,902,860 under the payroll heading. Budget amendments were also approved for the commissioner’s budget, raising that category by $14,643 to a new total of $123,893.

Work on the new Houston County Highway Department headquarters continues. Commissioners approved a facilities installation agreement with Minnesota Energy Resources to provide natural gas to the main building, and noted that several change orders will be necessary as the project evolves. 

The board also confirmed the highway department is making preparations ahead of the 2021 Houston County Fair in August, so that visitors to those events will still be able to park on county-owned land nearby.

Members considered providing some sort of additional support for Local Road Improvement Program (LRIP) applicants from Houston County. 

Last February, the board passed resolutions sponsoring LRIP grant applications from the City of Caledonia (Warrior Ave.), the City of Houston (Westgate Drive), Mound Prairie Township (South Ridge Road), Wilmington Township (Nine Oaks Road), and Yucatan Township (Cut Across Road). An application from the City of La Crescent (Walnut Street) also received a letter of support, but no sponsorship.

Of those applications, only the South Ridge Road project won funding, county engineer Brian Pogodzinski reported. So the board discussed finding ways to boost the chances of local applicants (both townships and cities) while stopping short of taking on additional liabilities.

“We’re going to have as much interest in LRIP for funding sources moving forward as we did this time,” Pogodzinski stated. “Historically we had one of the cities or a township apply. It was pretty minimal ... but this time we had a lot more interest, and (we expect to have more interest) next time as well.” Commissioner Bob Burns said that he had already encouraged the City of Caledonia to re-apply for the next round of funding.  

Burns also reported he had met with several Houston County Township Association officers, and although they felt that “libraries are important to the county,” the $40,000 increase in county support for 2022 proposed by SELCO representatives in April was a bit “excessive.” Township officers said an increase of half that amount “seemed more appropriate,” Burns noted. SELCO received $165,930 from the county for 2021. 

It’s just one of the 2022 budgetary decisions that commissioners will soon take on. SELCO, the Root River Soil and Water Conservation District (RRSWCD), Houston County Agricultural Society (also called the Fair Board), and Houston County Historical Society are top recipients of appropriations. 

Members of the county’s personnel committee met with RRSWCD representatives to discuss the possibility of that organization taking over feedlot and septic inspections for the county, Commissioner Eric Johnson reported. Board members briefly discussed that topic, and decided to place the item on a future agenda once a cost estimate for the service becomes available. 

The issue isn’t simple. Houston County Environmental Services has been short-handed of late (once staffed by five persons, but having only two on board on July 14)  and commissioners have contracted to have some septic inspections done by a private company, while Winona County staff have assisted with some feedlot inspections. 

One additional employee was hired as a clerk for the department under Tuesday’s consent agenda, but (in spite of posting job openings) the county is still short on trained field inspectors.

Another item mentioned was that a near-future meeting (probably on July 13) will be ending the county’s COVID-19 emergency declaration which was enacted in March of 2020.

Amy Sylling was hired as the “clerk tech 1” for Environmental Services. The consent agenda also accepted the upcoming (August 27) resignation of social worker lead-person Jessica Reed with thanks for her 15 years of service, and initiated a search for a social worker for Public Health and Human Services.

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