By Sally Sedgwick
The Itasca County Board met on Tuesday, Dec. 17 with all commissioners present.
Occasionally contentious, the lengthy meeting covered public input, salaries, board meeting schedule, budget setting and small business tax concerns.
Alexis Martire, IMCare quality director, spoke on the Opioid Project, a statewide initiative to reduce the number of new chronic opioid users. The study looked at those who had never used opioids but received a 21 day supply for a medical condition. Due to interventions at the pharmacy level, the county Medicaid population reduced its dependency rate by over 50 percent from 2012 to 2018.
A public hearing was conducted for an updated county tobacco ordinance. Public Health Division Manager Kelly Chandler said that the ordinance had not been updated since 2002, but surveys had shown that youth use of tobacco or e-cigarettes (vaping) was significant: 24 percent of ninth graders in the county, for example, reported use in the previous 30 days. Nicotine use is the No. 1 cause of chronic health conditions, she said, costing each household in Itasca County $753 per year in taxpayer funded medical costs. The new ordinance doesn’t ban any adult use, but raises costs of licensing fees and penalties for underage sales.
The board heard from residents that there is more and more data about the dangers of vaping; that vaping may have higher nicotine content than cigarettes and schools have “businesses going” among students; that youth is targeted through flavors, colors and stickers; and that teens don’t think addiction will happen to them until it is too late. Two retailers supported the ordinance but spoke about owners who train their employees and can’t be present all the time to enforce it. Fines should be paid by those who sell to underage customers, they said, not owners. Public Health said the division would provide training on request.
The commissioners discussed the removal of citizen input from the board agenda. Chair Davin Tinquist reported on an Association of Minnesota Counties conference session about the subject which talked about rules of decorum which should be followed if a public forum is used. Commissioner Terry Snyder recommended the topic be addressed in the Jan. 7, 2020 Work Session and invited the public to comment via email to County Administrator Brett Skyles at email@example.com . Later in the meeting, resident John Casper pointed out that the board policy to allow citizen input was still in force.
He also requested that board meetings be held in the evening to allow more citizen participation and requested more detail when describing closed meeting agendas. After discussion about the start time for board meetings, the 2020 board schedule was adopted on a vote of 3-2 to maintain a 2:30 p.m. start time with work sessions on the first and third Tuesday and regular board meetings on the second and fourth Tuesday.
Casper also spoke on the budget and paying for a new jail, saying that the Sheriff’s Office has logged almost $1 million in overtime. He believed that budget cuts could pay for a jail instead of a levy, as taxes are likely to go up with potential loss in major industry. County Treasurer Jeff Walker said that a levy or sales tax were really the only options to pay for a jail which was mandated by the state. He also pointed out some good budget news including increased interest revenues, more county program aid from the state than anticipated, a levy which only increased one-third of one percent, savings in a switch in health care plan, achieving budget or below budget targets as of November for the Sheriff’s Office and jail, and increasing amounts in general reserves.
Campground owner Tom Greniger spoke of the property tax burden to small businesses. His taxes are about $14,000 and his business is only operated five months a year. “We need to find a common ground for small businesses to survive,” he said.
In other business, the board:
• Approved commissioner warrants in the amount of $1,055,326.06.
• Recognized new employees Amber Silliman (IMCare), Cory Smith, Ross Burt and Ryan Johnson (Transportation Department) and Rachel Evenson (Attorney’s Office); promotion of Micah Kral (Transportation Department); and Natalie Moren, transferred within Human Services.
• Approved 2020 beer, liquor and/or tobacco license renewals.
• Approved a contract with CliftonLarsonAllen for the 2020 IMCare external financial audit for $53,500.
• Set rates for Health and Human Services contracted services/provider contracts and approved contracts for various nurse, director and advisor services.
• Reappointed County Surveyor Guy Carlson for a four year term.
• Approved a 2019-2021 Collective Bargaining Agreement with the Itasca County Employees Association which includes a 2.75 percent cost of living adjustment in wages and changes in health and life insurance.
• Signed a detour agreement with Minnesota Department of Transportation reimbursing the county about $3,118 for road life consumed during detours over a four month period for a Highway 6 improvement project in Deer River.
• Approved the ADA Transition Plan for Public Rights of Way which was presented on Nov. 26. No public comments were received.
• Set a Land Classification Meeting for Tuesday, March 10 starting at 10:30 a.m. in the County Board Room.
• Authorized unanimously a 2.75 percent wage increase for 2020 (comparable to collective bargaining unit agreements) for the county assessor, engineer, surveyor, Veteran Services officer, county administrator and Health and Human Services director.
• Authorized in a 4-1 vote negotiated Step and Cost of Living Adjustment increases of various amounts for elected officials including the county attorney, auditor/treasurer, recorder and sheriff. Commissioner Ben DeNucci pointed out that he appreciated merit-based criteria being included.
• Froze unanimously the Itasca County Commissioner salary schedule in place since 2016.
• Scheduled a Legislative Delegation Luncheon for Jan. 10.
• Received an invitation to attend a January meeting of the local assisted living facilities.
The board adjourned to a closed meeting to consult with its attorney on court action to register title to certain lots and nullify public access from County Road 326 to Trout Lake.
The next regular meeting of the Itasca County Board is on Tuesday, Jan. 14 at 2:30 p.m. in the Itasca County Board Room with the annual organizational meeting on Jan. 7 at 2:30 p.m.