Crow Wing County commissioners Tuesday voted to take over the Sanitary Management District Board.
The county board, with the help of special legislation, established a countywide sanitary sewer district in 2005. The goal was to help residents properly maintain on-site septic systems. The plan was to start in a pilot project area where residents would pay a $23 annual fee to the sewer district.
County Administrator David Hamilton noted the $23 annual fee met with resistance from residents. Last year, Doug Morris, solid waste coordinator, came to the group's assistance, particularly in its issues of grant management. Through the efforts, Hamilton reported there was a growing awareness that a separate board wasn't required to manage septic policies. Hamilton said the management could best be handled by an expansion of the county's solid waste department.
Tuesday, Hamilton recommended the sanitary management board serve an advisory position while the county took direct oversight of the plan. Hamilton's recommendation included transferring Denny Myers, who has served as planning and zoning enforcement officer, to the solid waste department to head up the initiative. Morris would be named director of waste management and his department would be renamed and expanded to include septic issues.
However, there are legal questions regarding the move. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is seeking a legal opinion as to whether the county board can become the sanitary management board.
If there is a legal challenge and the board has to take corrective action in the future, so be it, Hamilton said.
"I believe it is in our best interest to move forward," he said.
Hamilton said the issue of how septic systems are managed is important as the water quality here is a foundation for property values. The county largely depends on proper management of septic systems, Hamilton said.
"It's my legal opinion that the board cannot act as the board for the sewer district," said County Attorney Don Ryan.
Commissioner Paul Thiede disagreed, saying he was comfortable with Hamilton's citation of the statutes and the board would be corrected if it was wrong.
Commissioner Dewey Tautges wondered if the board was getting the cart before the horse, noting grant money was in question and he didn't want to lose those dollars.
Commissioner Rosemary Franzen said she's always felt the sanitary sewer district board was another layer of government. Jim Knudsen, sanitary sewer board member, objected. Knudsen said the sanitary board was not another layer of government. Instead, he said it was an extension of planning and zoning, doing work the staff did not have the resources to provide.
Hamilton's recommendation came as a bit of a shock, Knudsen said. Parts of the plan had merit, Knudsen said as he asked for time to hear the legal opinions being sought on the state and national level that could affect grants.
"I don't want to see this dismantled unnecessarily until we have all the ducks in a row," Knudsen said. "I don't want to see our legs chopped out from underneath us. We are finally getting traction. And I'd like that traction to continue."
Franzen said it's her understanding the grants weren't in order until Morris took over the work. And she said the county is still waiting for a septic system inventory.
"I have real questions to what was accomplished before Doug (Morris) took over," Franzen said.
The board voted to follow Hamilton's recommendation with Tautges opposed.
The sanitary district's goal was to compile all the information on septic systems and develop a management plan. When the county established the sanitary sewer district, it noted there is little data about how systems are performing and less enforcement of proper system maintenance.
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.
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