In the middle of May, John Uecker, chairman of the Albion Township Board, sat around fewer people that could comprise a standard jury.
Their goal was to get enough signatures on a petition to stop the bonding process for the $60 million combined Government Center/Tactical Training Facility – a cooperative venture between the Wright County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI.
While final numbers aren’t officially in, there already are enough verified signatures on the 729 pages of signed petitions (4,600 in all) to meet the needed threshold of 3,000 to trigger a reverse referendum, which, if played out, would require a one-issue ballot vote at all voting precincts in the county.
It has been a heady time. The movement to get the needed signatures built like a wave and included an arrest at the Buffalo Wal-Mart on trespassing charges.
Uecker said the last few weeks, especially the week leading up to the May 30 deadline, was critical to their success. The petition group highlighted that the county board didn’t consider the existing courthouse as a viable option moving forward.
“It was a wild venture to try it,” Uecker said. “I had been to several meetings over the winter and it was so disgusting. They absolutely had one agenda and that was it. I had no idea we were going to make the number needed. But, we got it done.”
Uecker said that areas of the county believed to be most strongly in support for the new facility – cities like Buffalo, Monticello and St. Michael – provided many of the signed petitions.
County Board Chair Darek Vetsch said that he is often contacted by constituents on issues that are hot-button topics. He only received a handful of emails and phone calls on this topic. Given the ramifications of the potential for a reverse referendums, the county’s options – which are numerous under the law and all being considered – will only add to the final cost of the project, which will come at some point.
“What this petition does is force us as a county board into making decisions that are bad,” Vetsch said. “Every decision is going to come with a price. Last year’s levy increase was factoring in the bonding cost of building a Government Center while the interest rates are extremely low. Now, you can’t project what the costs will be a year or two years or three years from now. We’re going to have to make decisions, but no matter what we do, the cost of all of this just started going up.”
When asked if he wants to see a citizen vote on the building, Uecker said that the goal of his group wasn’t to bring every decision of the county board to a public vote. It was more about getting a seat at the table for big-ticket projects that impact residents so that their opinions could be heard. But the petition calls for a vote, so that is where his stance remains.
“The people signed the petition to bring it to a vote,” Uecker said. “We just feel that we can save this courthouse. It’s a historical site in Wright County and we want to save it. Use it for Human Services for now and, if it gets too crowded, build another building for them. But, we can keep the rest of our county offices in that building for decades. The courthouse is like your house. If the roof leaks, you pay for a new roof, not buy a new house.”
Commissioner Mike Potter doesn’t buy the concept of saving money by staying in the current courthouse. One of the first bills that will come due in Wright County will be to hold the unprecedented special election that is potentially coming.
Unlike regularly-scheduled even-year elections, where the funding reimbursement is written into state law to cover the costs of bringing people in to conduct local election precincts, if the reverse referendum will be legitimized at the June 11 board meeting, the taxpayers of Wright County will end up picking up the tab for it.
“The county has to pay it and the cost is about $100,000,” Potter said. “The cities don’t pay it. The townships don’t pay. During a general election, you get some state reimbursement for that. In special elections, you don’t get state reimbursement. It’s 100 percent local.”
Uecker said his group was hastily formed and, by his own admission, a bit disorganized, but it came together with a single purpose to bring the topic of big expenditures by the county to have more than cursory public input. However, such a drastic policy change – setting a precedent that is extremely rare in Minnesota politics – has been met with legal counsel from both inside and outside the county. The petition needs to meet the letter of the law and the county is vetting its options pertaining to the legalities of the submission of the petition.
There are a lot of eyes on the documents involved and whether proper procedure took place – allegations have been made that the petition drive was misleading in that claims were made that the county levy would once again experience a significant increase, despite the Government Center project funding being put in place in the 17 percent levy increase that took effect this year.
Potter said the county has done its due diligence in weighing the different options and the numbers don’t lie. When the county delayed building its current jail, waiting nearly doubled the price. He has dug his feet on this topic.
“You either stand for something or you stand for nothing,” Potter said. “I’ll fall on my sword for this. We looked at all the options. In the view of the people we hired to look into this and the long review the county board did on the different options, building a new Government Center at this time at that place made the most long-term sense. It wasn’t even close. Of all the options on the table, the worst option was to continue to kick the can down the road and keep putting Band Aids on a building that everyone who has taken a serious look at it has said has served its purpose, but needs to be replaced.”
While the county weighs its options, so does the group that Uecker represents. He doesn’t know where this issue is headed, but, considering that a month ago he was making his plans with a group no bigger than a final table at the World Series of Poker, what they accomplished is pretty epic in the world of politics.
“At the first meeting we had, there were only 10 of us,” Uecker said. “We looked around at each other and figured if we could 300 signatures from each of us, we could do this. We decided to go for it. We met on (May) 22nd and we were nowhere near what we needed. I was amazed at how it turned out.”