WALKER – Cass County commissioners appealed to their state legislators Tuesday to make some changes in the 2012 session that ultimately could benefit county government and local citizens.
Sen. John Carlson, Rep. Larry Howes and Rep. John Percell attended the county board meeting to discuss the upcoming session.
Cass Administrator Robert Yochum, speaking in behalf of the board, asked the legislators to exempt the 55 counties currently upgrading their emergency radio communications systems from paying sales tax.
Metro area counties received that exemption when they installed new systems earlier, Yochum noted. If Cass were forced to pay the estimated $250,000 to $300,000 tax on new radio system equipment, the county would use some state funds to pay the state tax. Services to install are sales tax exempt.
State grants and Enhanced 911 funds the state collects and disburses will pay for about $1 million of the nearly $5 million new system, Yochum noted. Sheriff Tom Burch later in the meeting reported the county will switch onto the new 800 Mhz system Feb. 6.
None of the legislators responded on whether a radio equipment exemption might pass the Legislature.
Land Commissioner Joshua Stevenson asked the legislators to revise state statutes to streamline the process for counties to exchange land with the state. He presented a proposal from the Minnesota Association of Land Commissioners that would allow county boards to set the value for land being exchanged.
Howes said the DNR has been reluctant to support a statewide change, but might consider supporting a pilot trial for Cass and one other county. Stevenson reacted positively to that option.
The commissioners told the legislators they were pleased to learn the state now allows volunteer fire fighters and ambulance workers the option to purchase medical insurance through the Minnesota Care program at $427 per month.They asked for that option to be extended to other emergency service volunteers such as first responders, dive team members and a sheriff’s posse.
Neither the board nor the legislators offered constructive options for solving the problem of spreading invasive species in the state’s waterways, though all agreed it is a serious problem that needed innovative options for a solution.
Howes asked whether Cass expects to present requests this year for additional recreational trails funding. Commissioner Neal Gaalswyk noted the city of Lake Shore has begun working toward extending trails around Gull Lake to connect with the Paul Bunyan Trail.
Since the DNR gave Cass $4 million worth of former state-leased lakeshore lots to sell in 2000 on the condition that the sale proceeds be kept as a trust fund, the county has generated $1.6 million interest from that trust fund. The money was matched with other resources to complete $3.3 million in natural resource projects since 2000, Yochum said.
Stevenson and Environmental Services Director John Ringle thanked the legislators for funds the county has received from the 3/8 percent sales tax, which Cass has used to complete conservation easements, pay for voluntary private sewer system inspections and acquire forest habitat.
Dale Yerger, Deep Portage Conservation Reserve director, noted state and federal grants have been a major funding source for $1 million in energy improvements made in the last year at the nature center east of Hackensack.
More energy efficient lights and windows were installed before the center switched to a wood gasification heating system and added a wind turbine and solar electric sources. These changes made it possible to cut the center’s energy costs to $1 per square foot, Yerger said. An effort was made to buy Minnesota made products and to hire locally for those improvements, he added.
Yochum told the legislators Cass has tried to follow a legislative directive to work more cooperatively with neighboring governments. He cited the cooperative programs the county has with Leech Lake Reservation social services and its court system. He also noted the pilot agreement the county made with Minnesota Department of Transportation to exchange snowplow services on some county and state roads to make both their operations more efficient. Yochum said Cass’s highway department currently is trying to work out an agreement with Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to make that agency’s inspection process for counties match the existing policy for MnDOT. MPCA has been discussing on site changes they want MnDOT to make during highway construction projects, so MnDOT can make immediate corrections.
Past policy for MPCA corrective orders to counties was to send corrective emails only, which more often than not led to a fine for failing to comply. Cass wants the same on-site discussions with MPCA as MnDOT, so the county also can make immediate corrections and avoid future fines.