Wright County balks at Trailblazer contract plan

Borrell: ‘We can’t give blanket approval to this’

By John Holler

Contributing Writer


It is a foregone conclusion that, when July 1 comes, Wright County’s River Rider program, which supplies affordable transportation for citizens without their own mode of transport, will be absorbed into the Trailblazer program, a similar ride-providing program that currently operates in Sibley and McLeod counties.

But, at the April 1 meeting of the Wright County Board of Commissioners, it was clear that there still seem to be significant differences between Wright County and the Trailblazer program. Gary Ludwig, who heads up the Trailblazer program, came before the board looking for a preliminary agreement to be in place by April 9 to break down the local share of the funding cost and representation on the Trailblazer joint powers board. With Wright County only approving to start negotiating at a March 27 committee of the whole meeting, Commissioner Pat Sawatzke said that timetable is much too short to properly negotiate an agreement

“To me, it would be premature to make a decision on this right now,” Sawatzke said. “I think we can agree to move forward in negotiation, but I don’t think we’re in a position today to agree on this menu of proposals.”

Ludwig countered that, if the county isn’t willing to sign off on the preliminary agreement, the Trailblazer program may look to bypass Wright County and begin negotiations with individual cities. Whether it was a bluff or a threat, Sawatzke was quick to encourage Trailblazer to take that approach.

“If your position is that we have until April 9 to approve an agreement or you will start talking to cities, I say start talking to the cities now because this request is unreasonable,” Sawatzke said. “If that is the approach you’re looking at, good luck with getting an agreement in place with 16 cities.”

Commissioner Charlie Borrell has been an outspoken opponent of the program because he felt Wright County was blind sided at the end of 2013 when Sherburne County opted out of the River Rider program to join up with Stearns and Benton counties, leaving Wright County to fend for itself. He was also against the county signing off on a preliminary agreement without knowing what the costs would be.

“What kind of business is that where you sign up for something not knowing what the cost will be?” Borrell said. “The River Rider program was self-sustaining. Trailblazer loses money. Wright County doesn’t have any line item in its budget for the River Rider program. Last year, Sibley County put in $160,000 a year and McLeod County put in $320,000. By that formula, Wright County would be kicking in more than those two combined. We ran the River Rider program lean and mean. This is a far cry from that. The cities have a huge stake in this, so they want to have an input and feedback. I don’t think as a county, we can simply give blanket approval to this.”

The board proposed doing a short-term contract for six months in order to negotiate a long-term agreement, appointing Commissioners Mike Potter and Sawatzke serve on negotiation committee, with Borrell as an alternate.

“It’s the county’s desire to be a player in this,” Sawatzke said. “I think we’ll find out through the negotiation process whether we can reach an agreement that will be in the best interests of all involved. We can’t decide what level we’re going to be funding at if we don’t know what services we’re going to receive.”

In other items on the April 1 agenda, the board:

APPROVED the 2013 annual feedlot report, as well as the 2014-15 county feedlot program delegation agreement and work plan.

RECEIVED an update on County Ditch 34 by Delano. The City of Delano gave the county $20,000 in 2013 to make improvements to the tile line to accept runoff from an industrial park that is being developed in the city. The biggest concern is that, if the ditch gets clogged it may require boring under Hwy. 12, which would spike the cost of repair to $50,000 or more. Kerry Saxton of the Wright Soil and Water Conservation District asked that the county access that $20,000 fund to be used to make repairs to the ditch line because there are clearly problem areas along the ditch that are disrupting the flow of water through the ditch.

APPROVED a request from the City of Monticello for a trail easement across a tax-forfeited property (Hillside Farm Third Addition). There was a trail proposed when the project was initially approved, but the county and the developer never formally approved an agreement to complete the trail project. The easement would allow the trail to be completed by the city.

AUTHORIZED signatures on an agency agreement with the Minnesota Department of Transportation for an exchange of funds with Morrison County. Under the agreement, Wright County would receive federal dollars for the CSAH 33 road preservation project that were earmarked for Morrison County, while giving Morrison County an equal amount of state aid dollars from the Wright County road account.

APPROVED hiring a network analyst for the Information Technology Department. The county has had difficulty attracting candidates for the position because of the salary being offered. The county posted the job opening twice without attracting a qualified candidate. The board authorized hiring the new employee at Step 6 of the county’s pay scale.