By Craig Moorhead

The Caledonia Argus

Houston County commissioners approved a pair of retroactive labor agreements on Tuesday, March 23. 

The first was with Law Enforcement Labor Services, Inc., Local 60, while the second was with the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees. 

Both contracts run from January 1, 2021 through the end of 2023. And both pacts include a 2.5 percent wage increase for 2021, while wage adjustments for 2022 and 2023 remain open for negotiation.

COVID update

John Pugleasa, Houston County director of Public Health, reported on the COVID-19 pandemic. While no cases involving variants have yet been detected in Houston County, La Crosse County has already had at least one of those show up, he said.

“I think we can celebrate success right now with vaccination clinics, but our effort isn’t over, and it’s really not even close to over.” the director said. “We’re going to be doing vaccinations for quite some time. What we keep hearing, consistently, from the Minnesota Department of Health is that it’s a race against variants. It’s not uncommon for viruses to mutate and come up with variant versions. The degree to which we have a higher percentage of our population that’s vaccinated, is really the first line of defense against those variants.”

Minnesota has seen only a limited supply of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine arrive, but Houston County Public Health has signaled “a willingness to accept that vaccine,” public health supervisor Heather Myhre stated. “We will take that when they have that supply.”

Myhre said she expects a continued supply of Moderna vaccine for local clinics, but the number of doses will likely vary according to “the tier that we’re in, and how far along we are in that percentage of the population.”

Houston County is still in the top 10 of Minnesota counties as far as COVID-19 vaccination rates, Pugleasa noted.

Votes and discussions 

The board addressed several topics related to the Houston County Airport.

Commissioners approved opening some negotiations with engineering firm Bolton and Menk (Rochester). If those efforts yield an acceptable contract, the company will continue serve as airport consultants for the facility for the next five years.

A recent update to the airport’s master plan (completed with the aid of Bolton & Menk) cites a number of areas which could be improved at the airport. One would be to purchase more land for the construction of additional hangers (some of which would be county-owned, and some of which could house larger airplanes), relocate some existing hangers now on the apron, and remove “Taxi-lane Alpha,” which connects the existing hanger area with the runway. “Taxi-lane Bravo” would then be built to take it’s place. 

The airport has barely enough hangers to retain its FAA status (and funding) county engineer Brian Pogodzinski has stated on more than one occasion. The board agreed by consensus to look into having an environmental assessment performed on a 7.3 acre parcel which could be purchased (primarily with FAA dollars) for hangers. Commissioners also voted 4-1 to hire an appraiser to come up with a value for that parcel.

“We need businesses to come to Caledonia, and if we don’t have an airport down the road that’s not a very good deal either,” Commissioner Greg Myhre said. “(If) we want to improve Caledonia or Houston County, we’ve pretty near got to do something.” 

The board also approved the purchase of a 19.2 acre parcel near Hokah by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Area wildlife supervisor Brandon Schad spoke for the DNR, explaining that the PILT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) program will more than offset lost property tax revenues. The land will become part of the Root River Wildlife Management Area, Schad said, adding recreational opportunities to the area while providing additional floodwater storage and wildlife habitat.

Another ballot approved an offer to replace a bridge on Freeburn Ridge Road in Crooked Creek Township. ICON Constructors, LLC presented the low bid, at $926,798. The township’s share will be $20,000.

Commissioners also approved the resignation of environmental services specialist James Gardner, with thanks for his service to Houston County. A competitive search for a replacement was approved. On a related note, the board voted  3-2, narrowly approving a temporary (as-needed) septic inspections contract with G-Cubed Development, Inc., during the search.

In addition, the board extended “paid leave for Coronavirus, granting employees up to 80 hours of sick leave through May 31, 2021” as part of their consent vote.  

By vote, Houston County also accepted an offer from the City of Caledonia to purchase a parcel of land in that municipality (at  119 S. Kingston Street) for $13,200. 

The county acquired the parcel for back taxes through a quit claim deed, and will retain those taxes, penalties, interest and fees while handing the parcel off to the city. 

The City of Caledonia will get back $6,560 from their offer to partially cover a $33,594 special assessment owed on the land. That assessment stems from costs incurred by the City of Caledonia in removing a hazardous building from the site. The lot is slated to become a “pocket park,” featuring a three-dimensional mural.

Kimberly Cremers of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture briefed the board on continuing efforts to stop the spread of the gypsy moth in Houston County, She said residents in three areas, labeled Mound Prairie (12,060 acres), Brownsville (2,418 acres), and Jefferson (2,881 acres) will receive notifications in the mail prior to the application of species-specific pheromone treatments aimed at disrupting gypsy moth mating. 

Root River Soil and Water Conservation District manager Dave Walters also reported on recent and upcoming projects which his organization is working on. Those include a myriad of tasks impacting wetlands, feed lots, water planning, manure storage, erosion control, monitoring of sinkholes, efforts to combat invasive species, and more. Funding for those efforts comes primarily through a long list of grants. 

“On the books right now, we have 147 projects... 40 that are shovel-ready, and 54 EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) applications that are ready to go, (and) for 2021, we have about another 40 to address,” Walter stated. “So, we have a lot more need out there than what we can cover in cost-share assistance. It sounds like a lot of projects for one year, but they’re not (all) on one-year projects...”

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