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A budget request to the Morrison County Board of Commissioners, Tuesday, from Land Services Director Amy Kowalzek turned into an update on a decision the Board made earlier this year to combine two zoning boards.

On Jan. 5, after much discussion, the Board voted 3-2 to combine the Planning Commission and the Board of Adjustments. The new board went into effect, April 1.

The change created one, five-person board that serves as both the Planning Commission and the Board of Adjustments. Each person on the Board is serving a five-year term, with one member appointed from each of the commissioners’ five districts.

It was eventually decided that, rather than the per diem traditionally paid to committee members on a per meeting basis, the new board would receive a monthly stipend regardless of the number of meetings held.

“We had kind of waffled and had some discussion about what we should pay them, but we wanted to stay within our budget for them as we made that transition throughout the year,” Kowalzek said. “Right now we’re paying them a $225 stipend per month for the service that they contribute to the county.”

Kowalzek said, due to what is expected of this particular board, she wanted to raise the monthly stipend to $300 for each member. It was something she already had accounted for in her 2022 budget.

Commissioner Mike LeMieur asked Kowalzek to go over what a month consists of for the members of the PC/BOA. Kowalzek said there are typically two meetings — which consist of public hearings on variances and other land use requests — back-to-back each month. In their role as Planning Commission, the members of the Board make recommendations to the County Board. As the Board of Adjustments, they are able to rule on specific requests.

“Really, what the stipend is meant to cover is their time at those public hearings, their time when they’re viewing the variance or Board of Adjustment items prior to the meeting — which is yet another day, or afternoon, that they’re spending — and then also their time preparing for the meetings; reading their packet, asking questions and all of that,” Kowalzek said. “That’s really what that is meant to cover; is their time devoted actually in person at meetings and also their prep time on the back end.”

Commissioner Randy Winscher asked Kowalzek if she had any idea what other counties were paying. She said they’re “all over the board.”

Many, she said, are still paying a per diem. In terms of how that compares to what Morrison County paid prior to moving to a stipend, she said some counties pay about the same and some pay more.

Over the past year, however, she said several counties had discussed with her that they were also looking at combining the boards. She said, for most zoning administrators, the stipend is a better option because it creates a predictable budget number.

Commissioner Jeffrey Jelinski said, due to the fact not many people want a job on the PC/BOA and the amount of work that goes into it, he had no problem raising the monthly stipend from $225 to $300.

“When we went to this system, the hope was that we could get people through quicker,” said Board Chair Mike Wilson. “Has it had the advantage that we want? It seems like they really worked hard this last year. There’s been a lot of people in for variances and building permits. Is it kind of working the way we wanted it to work?”

“I believe it is,” Kowalzek said. “I know from the applicants’ end, when I tell them we run a meeting about every other week, they’re really happy to hear that. They don’t have a monthly opportunity; they have a bi-monthly opportunity to be heard.”

She added that the timing of those meetings allows items from the Planning Commission to come before the County Board just one week after it makes a recommendation at a public hearing. From a staff standpoint, she said it has made things easier for her team in the Land Services Department because they are able to have any type of agenda item included in an upcoming meeting.

She also felt having a combined PC/BOA allows members of the Board to get a more complete view of the issues on which they’re tasked with hearing. It creates a more “well-rounded” view of zoning, she said.

“These people work very hard for their money,” Wilson said. “The job that they do is not an easy job. Usually there’s things that people want and sometimes they can’t have. This board does a wonderful job going through and vetting what there is to do.”

Commissioner Greg Blaine said he had received feedback from township officials that the new process with the combined board was moving too fast. He asked Kowalzek if there was a big enough window of time for the more local units of government — many of which meet monthly — to get the information and give input on an item that impacts their jurisdiction.

“It seems to be that it could be possible that the time that they get notice to the time that the public hearing is (held) and the time that it comes to the County Board, could all fall in a window of time between the time that board meets in said month and their next monthly meeting,” Blaine said.

Kowalzek said she had not received any feedback of that sort. Ultimately, coordinating the PC/BOA meetings around the schedules of all of the township boards would be prohibitively difficult, if not impossible.

However, she said township officials would have a chance to give input on an issue prior to it even being brought before the PC/BOA if they were to attend the bi-annual Development Review Team (DRT) meetings.

“That is when, from the ground up, they have the opportunity to know what this is, what isn’t,” she said. “It’s before they even apply, and they can know everything they want, or make sure that applicant knows the information that they want to know or the concerns that they have.”

She said some applications might not even move forward if township officials were in attendance at those DRT meetings and raised concerns about a particular project or idea.

“I would really encourage townships to make themselves available for those meetings,” Kowalzek said. “If we need to tweak that schedule, I think that’s much easier.”

Blaine said he agreed, and he felt it was important going forward for both the Board and the Land Services Department to “underscore” with township officials the importance of attending DRT meetings. He said participation by those officials, in his mind, was not really optional.

Kowalzek added that the application deadline is one month prior to hearings with the Planning Commission. Once those are received, they are sent out directly to township officials in a packet, and a notice is printed in the Morrison County Record, usually one or two weeks after the application.

Oftentimes, she said ideas come before the DRT months before the Land Services Department actually receives an application.

“If we see something that we know is going to be an issue for the township, or we suspect will be, we will circle back directly with the township and/or require the applicant to touch base with the township,” she said.

Blaine asked how often township officials participate in the DRT meetings, currently.

“It’s like 5% of the time,” Kowalzek said.

“We need to do a better job, then, in communicating the importance of that to the township officials, I think,” Blaine said.

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