The Chisago County commissioners dug into the issue of who should pay for repairs to a culvert in North Branch that collapsed last October as part of their July 17 meeting.

The problems with County Ditch 7, which is crossed by a private driveway and culvert that serves six addresses and part of a seventh located at 6541 to 6596 Pine St. N. in North Branch, began last summer before reaching a peak in October.

On June 27 of last year, one of the property owners served by Ditch 7, Lorraine McKenzie, contacted County Engineer Joe Triplett regarding the culvert, which was showing signs of erosion and general failure.

Triplett, assuming that repairs to that culvert were the responsibility of the county’s Drainage Authority, said he would look into funding for the repairs.

During its Oct. 3 meeting the commissioners, who also serve as the Drainage Authority, approved the repairs. The county paid the costs to repair the culvert, while the individual property owners footed the bill for the private road that serves their homes.

That vote came none too soon: On Oct. 15 a sinkhole occurred, and it was repaired three days later. The work included replacing the culvert and repairing the gravel roadway, aprons and side slopes.

But soon after, the county staff determined that the culvert was not part of the county drainage system, meaning the county was not responsible for the cost of the culvert repair.

So who should pay for the repairs? That was the focus of roughly 45 minutes of debate at the July 17 meeting, during which the commissioners debated two options. The first option would have the county pay the $5,408 cost of the culvert replacement, and the second would make the property owners split the cost of repairs.

Several Pine Street North residents were given the opportunity to speak at the meeting, and their message was that the repair should be assumed by Chisago County.

“I would not expect anyone to pay for my personal driveway repair, nor to the drainage ditch under our property,” said Sue Sina, who lives at 6590 Pine St. N. “However, the access road under which Ditch No. 7 flows is a greater public need: The Postal Service drives over it six days a week to deliver mail; other delivery trucks use it, and trash collection use it as well. … And residents living upstream from Ditch No. 7 are adversely affected when drainage does not flow properly. This is a public issue.”

But County Administrator Bruce Messelt read a portion of law which states otherwise.

“Private streets or roads, which provide physical access to public roads, are not public streets – and no government entity has responsibility for their maintenance,” he read. “Nor does any government entity have any obligation or interest or intent to accept the private streets as public streets at any time in the future.”

Commissioner Chris DuBose put forward a motion that would have the county pay for the repairs.

“I think there’s enough gray area, and I think there were enough communication issues in the beginning, to justify the first option,” DuBose said.

But some commissioners feared having the county pay for this repair would open Pandora’s box and have them pay for repairs to other private ditches and culverts around the county.

“Why, if I’m another taxpayer, would I want to pay for this work on a private driveway?” Commissioner George McMahon said. “This is a private driveway and should be paid for by the people who benefit from it.”

Commissioner Ben Montzka said the key element behind his vote was that Triplett had agreed to repair the problem.

“I think this is a unique case, and I am persuaded to agree with Commissioner DuBose because I have been persuaded by county attorneys that this ‘good’ case would not make ‘bad’ law,” Montzka said. “Bad law would be that we would be taxing everyone in the county to pay for a private issue. … I think it would be fair to pay for this because our county engineer said yes to this work; I would not support this again in the future.”

The motion was approved 3-2 for the county to pay for the repair, with McMahon and Commissioner Rick Greene opposed. After the vote, Messelt said the county attorney’s office would craft a “findings of fact” that would keep the commissioners from dealing with future claims toward ditch repairs around the county.

Road repair update

Triplett said a number of county road projects will wrap up in the coming weeks.

On County Road 93, the work to replace the bridge is finished, and some work on the approaches to the bridge should be completed by the end of this week. The County 39 box culvert needs only to be grated to be complete, while the grating of that road itself should be done in the next month.

The paving of County Road 67 should wrap up by the end of the month, while work on Trunk Highway 59 and County Road 81 should begin in August.

According to Triplett, the Minnesota Department of Transportation indicated the Interstate 35 project from Harris to Pine County remains on schedule. MnDOT intends to switch the lane used for traffic on July 29. He added that work on the I-35 ramp work at Forest Lake has been delayed by a cement shortage, but the project still should be completed in the fall.

Triplett said the project to repair Trunk Highway 95 and County Road 14 will begin accepting bids in the next few weeks.

“I’m concerned by the bidding climate, and I believe the city [of North Branch] is, too,” Triplett said. “We may have to push construction back to next year if we don’t get good bids.”

If that is the case, it would join several other projects – County Road 19, County Road 25 and the Hazelton Roundabout – to be completed next year, with work on County Road 30 set for 2021.

As for the Trunk Highway 8 reconstruction project, Triplett said the county has been holding “pop-up” events to solicit comment from the community, a tactic he said has provided good feedback.

When asked to summarize that feedback, Triplett simply said, “Unsafe, unsafe, unsafe.”

He said the next pop-up event will be hosted by Lord of the Lakes Church between Chisago City and Forest Lake from 5-7 p.m. on Wednesday, July 31.

New administrators

The commissioners accepted the resignation of Messelt as county administrator. Messelt has been appointed as County Administrator at Sherburne County; his last day with Chisago County will be Aug. 31.

The commissioners appointed Chase Burnham as the interim county administrator, while Renee Kirchner will become the interim assistant county administrator and human resources director effective Aug. 11. Burnham currently serves as assistant county administrator, while Kirchner is the county’s human resources director.

ARMER agreement

County Attorney Janet Reiter worked with North Branch City Attorney Patrick Doran on a proposed amendment to the county’s 2012 ARMER radio agreement between the two entities. The Chisago County Commissioners approved the amendment, giving North Branch use of the radios through the end of 2019.

That 2012 agreement ended in 2018, causing a sometimes fractious scramble in recent months to reach a new agreement. Permanent agreements are in place with the county sheriff’s office, Almelund and Taylors Falls, but every other unit using ARMER radios are under temporary agreements that end on Dec. 31.

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