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$70,000 in tobacco money will promote health among county workers

Some $70,000 in tobacco money will be used to promote wellness among Beltrami County workers.

While commissioners voted Tuesday to commit the funds, at least one commissioner said the first priority should be quit-smoking help for county employees.

The county received $68,987 from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota as part of a tobacco litigation settlement that also saw billions go to the state.

A county panel presented a wellness plan to commissioners Tuesday night with the largest budget, $29,000, for comprehensive health risk and fitness assessments and screenings for the county's 400 employees. It also included $500 for a smoking cessation program for 20 people at $25 for a four-week class.

"You need to take a closer look at that," said Commissioner Ron Otterstad. "The money comes from tobacco, so it should be spent there. Smoking cessation should be the first priority."

Otterstad said priorities are wrong that spend $500 for a quit-smoking effort but $4,000 for "pamphlets." He was referring to the budget's $3,900 to purchase 600 copies of a guidebook on self-care and when to seek medical care.

County Human Resources Director Marilyn Nelson said the state auditor ruled that the funds could only be spent on wellness efforts, and that the panel's recommendations tie together with a healthier lifestyle.

Also, most of the county employees who are willing to volunteer for quit-smoking programs have already done so, she said.

The program as suggested "hopefully will have a positive impact on our health insurance rates," Nelson said.

The wide-ranging program would also provide $10,000 for customized individual sessions to target risk factors, $6,300 for fitness planning and training, to $2,000 for bike racks at all county buildings.

"It is a voluntary program," said County Administrator Tony Murphy. "It not only will make people feel better, but the bottom line should be lower insurance rates. We will be seeking corrective results."

The program is on top of a wellness facility that county employees sought in the new County Administration Building. Participating employees can exercise in the room by paying a $23 a month membership fee, which is offset by a $20 a month credit from Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

To date, 44 county employees are members of the center and make 400 visits a month.

"I commend the county employees for having such a program," said Commissioner Jim Heltzer, adding that the wellness program should also include weight loss education. "Health care is a large expense and this is a proper direction for the county to go in."

"This is exciting for us to be on the cutting edge of wellness," said County Board Chairman Joe Vene.

Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks said he supports the program, but believes county employees should pay something toward it. "They take it more seriously if they are a stakeholder, and it will make the money go further."

The County Board action allows a request for proposals for providing various screenings, assessments, fitness planning, educational programming and equipment purchases, as well as to allow remaining tobacco settlement funds to carry over from one year to the next to help fund ongoing programming.

Commissioners also voted to allow Northwest Minnesota Juvenile Center employees to participate, as they also participate in the county's insurance benefit program.

Music bill

Commissioners slated to discuss an unpaid bill for county deputy services at a summer country music festival shifted the matter to a consent agenda with little discussion Tuesday night.

Murphy had sought the board's permission to "promptly pursue collection of the debt, either through exercising terms of the security bond or through litigation."

Bemidji Entertainment Inc., promoters of the June 22-24 Country Fest Minnesota held on the former Castle Highlands Golf Course is more than 30 days past due on its $5,615 bill for field deputy and dispatch hours for which it was under contract with the county.

Promoters posted a $25,000 security bond, which could be forfeited if county bills are not paid in 30 days.

Murphy, however, said the county is dealing with different parties than the original promoter, Frank Chrz, and that the bill is expected to be paid.

"We're going to be paid, but it will be a matter of time," Murphy said.

"But we will not release the bond until we get the money?" Heltzer asked.

"We will not," Murphy said.

Heltzer also asked for an investigation into the Turtle Creek Saloon, operated by Bemidji Entertainment Inc., which he said is too noisy on weekends. The club features live Country Western acts.

"I've received a lot of e-mails from people that noise from the saloon each weekend keeps people up," he said. "We ought to check on that. It is an ongoing source of irritation."

But other commissioners thought there was little the county could do, since the county has no noise ordinance and that the saloon is within the city of Turtle River, which would have jurisdiction.

OHV planning

A public meeting is slated for Oct. 24 at the Hampton Inn in Bemidji to review off-highway vehicle road designations on the Chippewa National Forest, Tracy Beck, U.S. Forest Service district ranger in Blackduck, told commissioners.

The Chippewa National Forest has been working with area counties and the state since early this year to designate forest roads for OHV travel, and the public meeting will allow comment on those plans.

"We went through every road, every trail," he said. "We are doing an environmental assessment and will produce a map."

But the first effort is only Chippewa National Forest roads, he said. Trails will be taken up later. The work will determine which roads should be designated for OHV travel, as well as roads to consider for mixed use by both OHVs and licensed motor vehicles, roads with seasonal restrictions and roads not suitable for OHV travel.

"All the decisions aren't made," Beck said as input is still being sought. The Forest Service hopes to produce a final map by January 2008.

Fairbanks said that signage will be important, and Beck agreed, saying that eventual OHV routes will be posted open. Roads not posted will be considered closed to OHV travel.