By John Holler
Few issues among the members of the Wright County Board of Commissioners, four of whom started their job in January 2013, have been more divisive than the questions surrounding the end of the River Rider transit program.
Hours have been spent during public board meetings and committee meetings to discuss the future of transit in Wright County. At the board meeting, a decision was made. As with many previous votes on the matter, it was split among the commissioners, but the differences of opinion remain just as pronounced.
A week after coming up with a clear set of negotiation strategies, the board was presented with a set of terms put forth by the Trailblazer transit program, which currently serves McLeod and Sibley counties. Wright County would pay $210,000 to provide working capital for the remainder of 2014, would provide 35 percent of the local funding share moving forward and would agree that transit service would be provided using the Trailblazer model for operation of the organization.
A final bullet point made it quite clear that the Trailblazer Joint Powers Board (TJPB) wouldn’t move forward unless those three conditions were met, stating, “If the Wright County Board chooses not to approve these terms at their 4-22-14 meeting, negotiations between the TJPB and Wright County will cease. The TJPB will pursue other options.”
Commissioner Pat Sawatzke, who serves on the negotiation committee, said the document presented to the county board was little more than an ultimatum to join up.
“In all honesty, we didn’t have the negotiations I had hoped to have,” Sawatzke said. “Their board was kind of the position that we need to agree to these three things first before we negotiate.”
Commissioner Charlie Borrell said that agreeing to the Trailblazer proposal is essentially saying that Wright County is giving up and, by approving these conditions, would never be able to negotiate from anywhere but a position of weakness.
“It was as close to ‘take it or leave it’ as you could get,” Borrell said. “It’s not a negotiation session I wanted to be a part of after that.”
Commissioner Mark Daleiden made a motion to accept the proposal as spelled out in the Trailblazer letter, which was second by Commissioner Mike Potter. Board Chair Christine Husom then asked it there was any further discussion.
The next two hours would be spend discussing the situation, Sawatzke raised several questions. What is the “Trailblazer model?” What will it cost? What will Wright County get in the way of services? He said he hasn’t received answers to any of those questions.
Daleiden said that clearly the situation isn’t ideal, but the county needs to move forward because their previous transit system will die June 30.
“We’re being pushed – there’s no question about it,” Daleiden said. “But we need to do something. We don’t have a choice. Trailblazer is the only choice. Their cost per ride isn’t much more than ours. We need to do something for the residents.”
Sawatzke suggested the county might want to explore the possibilities of joining Sherburne and wished when the county found out about Sherburne County’s decision to join a transit system with Stearns and Benton counties that Wright County that had tried to join the partnership as well. While it can’t be done now, hindsight tells him that Sherburne County got a much better deal than Wright County.
“Basically Sherburne County is going to pay $15-20,000 a year and they’re going to get all their bus service,” Sawatzke said. “Our deal is that we pay $210,000 to get our foot in the door and they pay 35 percent (of the local share cost), which could be a couple hundred thousand a year. Who found themselves a good situation and who got stuck in one that isn’t as desirable? I don’t think there could be two greater extremes there.”
It was obvious that the motion had the three votes needed to pass, but both Sawatzke and Borrell took turns trying to sway a vote to their side. Borrell asked Daleiden why the county should enter into an agreement without knowing the cost ramifications prior to signing – something as businessmen neither of them would do.
“You’re a businessman, Mark, and you would do an agreement like this with your own money?” Borrell asked. “We’re supposed to be stewards of the county and its citizens. I’m a businessman and I wouldn’t do this on my own. Yet, we asked to do this with taxpayer money.”
Potter twice called the question to vote on the original motion, but the drama wasn’t over yet. What followed was a flurry of motions. Borrell asked that the motion be tabled, which failed by a 3-2 vote. A motion to amend the original motion so it would include language that River Rider drivers who qualify be given preference in the hiring process passed 3-2 – Husom joined Borrell and Sawatzke, as she did in another motion to approve the original motion contingent on approval of a joint powers agreement. Daleiden made a motion to have the negotiation committee include two commissioners who voted in favor of the Trailblazer proposal, effectively removing Sawatzke from the process. That motion failed by a 4-1 vote.
In the end, after almost two hours of discussion, the board approved the terms brought forward by Trailblazer by a 3-2 vote, bringing to an end (for now) a four-month saga that has dominated the conversation at the board level.
In other items on the agenda, the board:
AUTHORIZED hiring Kevin Casserly for appraisal work on the county in the event the county goes to court over a delinquent taxes of the former Cinema 2 in St. Michael. The theatre has been closed for several years and the former owners and the county have been at odds over the tax value of the property. If a settlement can’t be reached, the matter is scheduled for trial July 7.
AUTHORIZED by a 3-2 vote signatures on a letter to Pheasants Forever supporting a proposed land acquisition for use as a state wildlife management area. Commissioner Potter voted in favor of the proposal, but said he would be a hard sell on future acquisitions, since the county already has 5,200 acres of wildlife management land and that land effectively comes off the tax rolls for what it is worth. Commissioners Husom and Borrell voted against it.
HOSTED the annual Wright County Boy-Girl Day, which gives high school juniors an in-depth look at how county government works and introduces them to several department heads. The students who attended represented Buffalo, Delano, Dassel-Cokato, Howard Lake-Waverly/Winsted and Monticello High Schools.
RESCHEDULED a budget committee of the whole meeting that was intended to discuss the 2013 budgets and what to do with the money that remained. The meeting was originally scheduled for May 8, but, due to a scheduling conflict was moved to 6 p.m. Thursday, June 5.
APPROVED administration fines of $200 for three are bars for failure of alcohol compliance checks done by the county. The three that failed the checks were The Hitching Post in Annandale, Norm’s Wayside in Buffalo and Up the Creek in Silver Creek Township.
APPOINTED Paul Aarestad to the planning commissioner. He will represent District 4 and was appointed by Commissioner Potter.