Beltrami County Board: Olson briefs commissioners on session issues, questions timber policy
Sen. Mary Olson put Beltrami County commissioners on notice Tuesday that two county parks can't be managed primarily for timber harvests.
The discussion, at the end of a briefing the Bemidji Democrat gave on 2010 legislative issues, opened up a chasm between commissioners who want balanced resource management versus limited harvesting in Three Island County Park and Movil Maze.
At Board Chairman Jim Lucachick's request, Olson found the original deed for the two tracts and had Senate legal counsel research them. The lands, she said, were tax-forfeited and so timber revenues from them were split between the county, townships and school districts.
They were then deeded to the county as recreational/park areas, with any timber revenues flowing just to the county. But, Olson said, the deed requires the county to maintain the areas "for the exclusive use as county park and outdoor recreation areas. That is the exclusive use."
There is a reversionary clause that if some other use, such as management for timber harvest, the land reverts back to the original owner, which would be the state Department of Revenue, which oversees tax-forfeited land, Olson said.
"If the condition is no longer recreation, it reverts back to the original owner," she said, "although it would need a challenge for it to occur."
Olson said her study came not only at Lucachick's request, but also of several citizens concerned that county timber policies interfered with keeping both parks pristine.
The county's policy is to manage all county lands for sustainable timber harvest, but Lucachick has been trying to create a separate, less logging-intensive policy for county parks.
"If logging is the first priority and recreation second, that would change the circumstances of the deed," Olson said.
"We're just managing it," said Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks.
"But that's not the purpose in the deed," Olson said. "This is what I've learned and I wanted to bring it to your attention."
"That is all correct," County Attorney Tim Faver said of Olson's research. "It is a special use deed, but it doesn't say it has to be used exclusively as a park and that you can't cut a single tree."
Faver said the two parks are part of the county's recreational park plan.
"Our policy calls for sustainable forest management above all else," said Commissioner Jack Frost. "The parks contain old growth, so we are trying to find a balance."
"It depends on the language used," Olson said. "If something is said that a portion of the land is used for logging, it is not in the deed."
"This all stems from trying to lighten up the management in our park areas," Lucachick said, alluding that two recent cuts in the parks may have taken too much timber. "It has become contentious and it shouldn't be."
The county will not place a moratorium on timber harvests in either park, Lucachick said, "but we must have management in accordance with the deed. ... The recreation purpose has to be higher than the management."
In legislative matters, Olson said a hearing is planned Jan. 19 in St. Paul before the Senate Public Safety Budget Division on Beltrami County's bonding request for nearly $4 million for its jail energy efficiency project.
The county seeks renovate rather than rebuild the 25-year-old jail, updating it in new electronics and heating and cooling systems to make it energy efficient. Also planned are new areas for jail intake and a video conferencing area for jail visitors.
Sheriff Phil Hodapp, in making a pitch earlier to bonding committees, said the county jail serves state and federal agencies, making it a broader project than just a local jail. Other agencies include a federal drug task force and the U.S. Border Patrol.
"It isn't a project the state normally funds, but because of the multijurisdictional use, it's worth the argument," Olson said., "Part of the jurisdictional use is federal, and we haven't been able to get federal monies committed. It's worth making sure this issue is heard at the state level."
County jails may need to play a larger role in the future, she said, as many county jails are under capacity while the state considers building more prisons.
"We have to work on this together as partners," she said. "We are all on the same team and we need to figure out how best to jointly deliver services."
Another issue that greatly affects Beltrami County is Gov. Tim Pawlenty's unallotment of about $400 million which funds the General Assistance Medical Care program, the health care program for the state's most destitute.
Dropping the program could mean as much as an additional $1.5 million in uncompensated care to North Country Regional Hospital, Olson said. If GAMC patients now going to MeritCare Clinic Bemidji are included, who would then go to the NCRH emergency room, the uncompensated care could go as high as $4.5 million.
"This is a very big problem for our area," Olson said.
Should the federal health care bill pass, those patients would be covered under the federal Medicaid program, she said, but that wouldn't occur for years.
In the meantime, Senate Health and Human Services Budget Division Chairwoman Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, has offered a plan, but Olson, who serves on the panel, said she's not intended to support it.
"The plan would reduce reimbursements, which would further hurt our hospital, and would not pay for some things, such as medical care for jailed sex offenders," Olson said. "It also calls for counties to pick up some of the costs, perhaps 10 percent.
"I'm really concerned about what that would mean to this county's taxpayers," Olson added, "but what if we lose GAMC totally? Which bad pill would you rather swallow."
Commissioner Jim Heltzer suggested the Legislature work at repealing the provisions that allow a governor to unallot spending. "It allows a governor to do what he wants to do according to his values."
Heltzer noted that legislators were elected by majority vote while Pawlenty was not "elected by 50 percent plus one."
"Anything that would shift additional responsibility to property taxpayers I would like to resist," Olson said. "We already have disproportionately higher property taxes."
The Beltrami County Board hopes to meet with the three other legislators who represent the county at its Jan. 19 meeting.