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Hubbard County commissioners Greg Larson, Kathy Grell and Cal Johannsen take the oath of office. Larson has been elected board chair for 2011 with Dick Devine serving as vice chair. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Grell joins Hubbard County commission; makes impact

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news Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

A newly sworn Hubbard County Board of Commissioners welcomed its first female member in years Tuesday and she immediately set the tone for a business model approach to running the county.

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Kathy Grell joins a distinct minority of female commissioners, an estimated 12 percent, according to the Minnesota Legislature's Office on the Economic Status of Women.

Grell, who represents Dist. 1, made an impact on the board early in the agenda, suggesting department heads justify and report overtime monthly.

That concerned Public Works Superintendent Dave Olsonawski, whose road crews accrue regular overtime through the construction season and weather - related events.

He said several plow operators left their families over the holidays to keep Hubbard County roads open during successive snowstorms. The highway payroll records have about a month lag to calculate hours, so it was determined all overtime records should be turned in by the second board meeting following each reporting month.

Grell, a businesswoman, questioned whether, during the normal course of operations, a business should incur overtime. She said she understood the circumstances that will result in higher pay, such as snowstorms, but said commissioners should still keep a close eye on those expenditures.

Some departments such as Social Services, report overtime monthly. Others report quarterly.

Grell suggested monthly reports would keep both commissioners and department heads aware of the expenditures.

"Overtime is not normal in any circumstances," Grell said.

Commissioner Lyle Robinson said many departments budget for overtime based on past usage.

Business, running a business, encouraging business and regulating business became the focus of the board's first meeting of 2011. Some department heads agreed it's time to change the way they do business, so policy changes in the solid waste and land departments could be anticipated.

n New land commissioner Mark "Chip Lohmeier" was confronted by an angry citizen about the way that department conducts its land sales.

Lohmeier agreed a change in policy was warranted and will be implemented.

Leo Olmschenk said he was stunned to see the south side of his property cleared of all timber late last year, including trees he said were on his boundary line.

He said he was never notified the adjacent parcel was for sale "or I would have bought the permit myself for firewood," he protested.

The bare patch of land where trees once stood is an eyesore, he claimed. "That really burns a guy up," Olmschenk said.

Lohmeier said it's not generally the policy of the department for loggers to leave a buffer zone of trees next to adjacent property. The state requires "visual sensitivity settings" near rivers and roadways, but there are no requirements for private property, he said.

And buffer zones of trees inevitably blow down, Robinson said.

"Private property lines tend to move," Lohmeier added, noting, "buffers create issues" that sometimes require legal solutions when property owners engulf them.

But Lohmeier said early notification to landowners of pending timber sales on tax forfeited land would head off public relations problems and disputes over property lines, so he recommended a more proactive approach.

"We have to remember the public is the customer," Grell said, thanking Olmschenk for bringing the issue to light.

Lohmeier will meet with Olmschenk in the spring "or in July when the snow melts," commissioners joked, to determine if the county should replace any trees the loggers may have inadvertently cut.

Grell and commissioner Dick Devine also wondered about cabin leases the county forestry department enters into with private individuals and asked Lohmeier for a status report on those.

The county leases 54 primitive hunting cabins on acreage throughout the county. Those leases are generally passed from family members down and aren't offered to the public. But the county has never really kept track of the leaseholders and asked Lohmeier to check into them and report back to the board.

n The county's solid waste manager said it might be time to tweak some ordinances regarding junkyards and collectors and look into licensing fees for recyclers who haul waste out of the county. The issue arose when a retailer's compost hauler, which transports food waste to Duluth, was charged a $25 license.

Commissioners wondered if a business operating out of the county - and actually performing a service for the county - should be charged an annual fee.

Superintendent Vern Massie said he would research some possible ordinances for solid waste removal and recycling and bring them back to the board for review.

n Another business issue came to light when Environmental Services Officer Eric Buitenwerf introduced a model ordinance to regulate gravel pits.

While commissioners said they would like to regulate hours of operation, they do not want any ordinance to be so onerous that it would stifle businesses and landowners.

A citizen complained last summer when, during the Highway 71 construction, a large gravel pit near Kabekona corner crushed rock 24/7 during the construction work.

The commissioners debated whether they should simply contact pit operators and owners to get them to voluntarily use "reasonable hours of operation" or whether they should pass an ordinance.

Regulating common sense in the form of an ordinance usually invites associated pitfalls, commissioners suggested.

In the carrot and stick approach, should they seek voluntary compliance with the threat of an ordinance backing up the request? Grell and others favored getting input from the gravel pit landowners before considering any ordinance.

"I'm not one to infringe more rules and regulations on business," Grell said.

"If it's not a problem why are we going to make it one?" questioned Robinson.

And the process as envisioned by Buitenwerf would have required a variance application to deviate from any ordinance's "hours of operation" provision, thus involving the Board of Adjustment.

The development troubled some commissioners, who worried about additional red tape and delays for operators.

"Voters have the right to have someone making the decisions that are accountable to them," Robinson said. That would be the county board. The BOA is appointed, not elected.

Robinson suggested the county could bypass the BOA by simply declaring a moratorium on any ordinance if operators needed to work outside the hours prescribed.

"A moratorium for the wrong reasons could invite a lawsuit," Buitenwerf said.

The county has been sensitive to getting sued as it currently battles a lawsuit against it for a BOA variance decision last year.

"We don't want to pass an ordinance," Devine said. "We just want them to stop."

"It's the big outfits from out of state you're really trying to control," Robinson said, noting the operator that caused the complaints on the state highway project was from North Dakota.

"We don't need to kill a fly with a machine gun," Robinson said. "It's not our intention to control stockpiling and hauling."

No action was taken on a proposed ordinance until commissioners touch base with the businesses affected.

n Grell also suggested the county should get on board the broadband express. The Regional Economic Development Commission, city and other entities have been pressuring lawmakers to expand broadband Internet access throughout the county.

"If we don't have any broadband we can't get business," Devine said.

Robinson urged the phone companies be involved before outside competitors come in and corner the broadband market.

Grell said the county should exert pressure and determine "what kinds of things we can influence."

Board members agreed they would make better use of their scheduled work sessions in 2011. Nearly all of them were canceled last year.

n The board also set department head salaries and those of elected officials for 2011.

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