The Sherburne County Board of Commissioners met Tuesday and tackled a long agenda filled with decisions that will help guide the county’s efforts in 2021.
As has been the custom in recent years, they also elected a new chairperson and this time District 2 Commissioner Raeanne Danielowski was unanimously approved to wield the gavel for the next 12 months.
She thanked the other commissioners for placing their faith in her to guide the board during these trying times, and then immediately recessed the regular meeting to hold both the HRA and the Regional Rail Authority meetings. Statute dictates these meetings be held, although because Sherburne County does not levy funds for either entity, little business was transacted.
As part of the new year’s reorganization, the commissioners reviewed bids for the county’s official publications. Both the Star News and Patriot submitted bids in each of the three categories: delinquent tax list, financial statements and commissioner proceedings.
Several commissioners expressed gratitude for having two bids to review, as many counties are being faced with having zero options for the legally required publications.
After a brief discussion regarding distribution and readership of the two newspapers, the board approved Patriot to publish all three categories based on being the low bidder. Administrator Bruce Messelt stated that he will notify department heads of the status of the county’s new official newspaper.
Auditor/Treasurer Diane Arnold updated the board on the progress in the Driver’s License service area and asked for approval to move forward with the purchase of additional signage, as well as mobile ticketing software to enhance the customer experience.
The signs will help direct traffic in a more efficient manner, while the software will create another convenience for people who will now be able to check into their appointment from their mobile devices before entering the building. This feature should result in reduced wait times and will be an added level of service even after COVID is no longer wreaking havoc on the renewal process. Overall feedback on the appointment process has been extremely positive and is something the county plans to continue in the future.
Commissioners approved the request and also learned that they will soon hear a presentation on staffing in the area, which has temporarily been addressed with cross-training employees from other departments to try and bridge the gap during the COVID-related shutdowns.
With the REAL ID deadline looming this fall, staff expects to face a backlog of applicants that already push current appointment availability weeks and sometimes months out for the public.
On a related note, the county is joining with other local entities in pushing the State of MN to adopt an increase in the transaction fee to cover license renewals. The current $8 fee has been in place for 13 years and does not come close to covering expenses, meaning that taxpayers are forced to subsidize the process.
Because the Federal Government did not extend its FFCRA (COVID-related leave) benefit into the new year, the county decided to offer employees a chance to carry over any unused days through Feb. 28. Last fall, 9% of all county employees were forced to use the full 80 hours of paid leave because of COVID-related absences, whereas another 23% used at least some of the allotted hours.
In the jail, COVID was an even greater threat as 29% of employees used the full 80 hours while 63% used at least some of the leave. In order to acknowledge the challenging environment within the jail, the county is offering these staff members an extension until June 30 to utilize the existing leave. This will apply to jail employees who have a positive COVID test and cannot work remotely. In addition, they will have had to exhaust all of their current emergency paid leave and the absence cannot be covered by worker’s compensation insurance.
In preparation for the Jan.7 workshop with area legislators, the board reviewed its legislative priorities for the upcoming session.
Based on prior feedback, Messelt prioritized several areas including transportation (Hwy. 169 and CSAH 4 interchange), HHS response flexibility and exploration of a Community Development Agency (CDA). The county is also working with other entities on promoting rural broadband initiatives and the previously discussed deputy registrar compensation issue.
For the transportation focus, commissioners decided to remove the language around the Northstar corridor in order to achieve more focus on the pressing roadway issues within the county.
With the HHS response flexibility bill, which saw a level of bipartisan support a year ago, a new State Senator will need to step forward after last year’s sponsor, Jerry Relph, passed away several months ago.
The CDA proved to be the most complex issue, as more meetings will be needed to craft the bill which would effectively merge the county’s HRA with its EDA. The result would give the county the authority to work within local jurisdictions, although as Commissioner Tim Dolan pointed out, this ability already exists in relation to local governments who do not have their own HRA’s and EDA’s.
All the commissioners agreed that more discussion is needed in this area with local cities and townships to foster a collaborative approach. In addition, while the creation of a CDA could create a new entity with taxing authority, it was noted that the county already has this authority with its two existing groups but declines to levy any tax dollars.
HHS Director Amanda Larson focused much of her update on the county’s role in the distribution of COVID vaccines.
As of Monday, she reported Minnesota had administered 78,402 doses of the 300,000 it has been allotted.
While both the State and Federal Governments play a role in delivering the shots in the arm for certain groups, to date the county’s role has been to vaccinate First Responders. Larson reported that of the 357 county First Responders eligible in the first round, 120 chose to be vaccinated. Records show that between the local, state and federal response, a total of 170 residents of Sherburne County have received their first dose of a vaccine and in two weeks, the second shot will be administered to those people.
She also acknowledged the frustration from some members of the public with the pace of vaccinations, but pointed out that the county must receive permission from MDH to move to the next category of eligible participants.
Another obstacle is that the county does not receive much advance notice as to how many doses it will be receiving within the next week. Larson noted that a pair of vaccination clinics are scheduled for next week and others will be announced as soon as more doses are available.
“We are working as hard as we can and as fast as we can,” said Larson, who added that the vaccinations are her department’s number one priority.
Next in line will be other health care workers such as hospital staff, medical clinic workers and dentists.
Assistant Administrator Dan Weber provided the board with an update on the latest round of business relief, as 31 applications had been received so far. This aid was targeted at businesses who were affected the most by Governor Walz’s shutdown orders in November, including restaurants and fitness centers. Weber and another staff member had personally visited many of these businesses within the past two weeks to encourage business owners to apply.
While some checks will be issued this week, Weber pointed out that many applications are coming in with incomplete information. This slows down the process for everyone involved, as it can take a considerable amount of staff time to seek the proper documentation before considering the request. However, completed applications submitted with proper documentation are many times approved expeditiously and funds distributed in a relatively short amount of time.
The next meeting of the board is scheduled for Jan. 19, although Messelt indicated that a special meeting could be called next week to approve additional business relief applications in an effort to distribute funds as quickly as possible.