By John Holler
Just when it appeared that the four-month transit malaise in Wright County was over, the volatile partnership between the Wright County Board of Commissioners and Trailblazer Transit of Glencoe was severed unexpectedly by the Trailblazer board of directors.
In a letter dated April 28, the Wright County Board acknowledged receipt of the decision from Trailblazer to stop negotiations with Wright County to arrive at a joint powers agreement. Last December, Sherburne County informed Wright County that it would be leaving the River Rider program. At that point, the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Transit Division attempted to assimilate Wright County into Trailblazer.
Almost from the beginning, there were issues that at least county commissioners Charlie Borrell and Pat Sawatzke had problems with how Trailblazer does its business. It is impressive, but it comes with a cost. A big cost. Given the conservative nature of the Wright County Board over the years, a big expense where there wasn’t one before was seen as something that needed to be vetted. When commissioners did their due diligence, some red flags came up.
“By MnDOT’s own numbers, Trailblazer was the second most expensive system in the State of Minnesota,” Borrell said. “Of the 39 transit systems in the state, Trailblazer was 38th out of 39. Only the Red Lake Indian Reservation had a higher cost per hour than the $75 cost to operate Trailblazer. It was 50 percent more than the state average and much more than River Rider, which basically sustained itself. Pat and I made valid arguments that we shouldn’t sign off on an ultimatum that was made (at the April 21 meeting). It passed, but apparently that wasn’t enough.”
In a letter to the county board from Gary Ludwig, executive director of the Trailblazer Joint Powers Board, the county was informed of the Trailblazer decision to opt out of negotiations, in which he defended the Trailblazer system and placed blame on the River Rider system.
“Trailblazer provides more than twice the level of service and nearly four times the number of rides in an area with less than half the population of Wright County,” Ludwig said in his notice of termination. “On the other hand, River Rider has been cited by MnDOT for numerous performance issues and is dissolving because Sherburne County no longer wanted to partner with Wright County. Subsequently, Trailblazer finds it ironic and offensive that Commissioners Sawatzke and Borrell are so critical of Trailblazer’s numbers and believe that they can fix Trailblazer if given the opportunity to do so.”
Ludwig went on to say that the Trailblazer board – whose vote was 4-0 to cease negotiations with Wright County with one abstention – didn’t care for the debate that took place at the Wright County Board meetings the previous two weeks and the lack of unanimity among the commissioners to join up with Trailblazer.
“Regrettably, the Trailblazer Board cannot pursue a partnership with Wright County at the present time due to Wright County’s lack of confidence, trust and respect for Trailblazer,” Ludwig said. “The lack of responsibility, professionalism and stability on the Wright County Board also makes it difficult for Trailblazer to believe that an amicable, long-term partnership will be successful at this time.”
Sawatzke said that Wright County wanted to have cost estimates firmed up given the high cost of the Trailblazer program. Because of the termination of negotiations with the county, the joint powers agreement discussion now reverts to the cities that currently contract with River Rider – Albertville, Annandale, Buffalo, Cokato, Delano, Hanover, Maple Lake, Monticello, Otsego and St. Michael. Yet, Connie Holmes, the mayor of Waverly (which isn’t a city currently contracting with River Rider) spoke on behalf of cities that will begin a negotiation with Trailblazer.
“Our problem was that we just had a problem with taking their word that this would be something that would work for Wright County,” Sawatzke said. “The motion to accept the terms Trailblazer put, which included a $210,000 buy-in to the program an annual funding cost that we assumed would be similar to that. To be honest, I hoped that we could work something out that would work for all us. I thought it was a bad deal and now I would have to think that the cities are taking on a similar deal.”
Borrell said he thought that Wright County was made to feel like they were forced upon the Trailblazer group and that tone of the negotiations became more akin to a list of demands.
“I’m most saddened that we weren’t treated as equals throughout this process,” Borrell said. “It seemed like it was a ‘my way or the highway’ type offer from the beginning. We were the outsiders coming in. If I was a private businessman asked to put up my family’s money to get into a similar situation Wright County is being asked to get into, I wouldn’t. It seems to me that Trailblazer’s problem with Wright County is that we all didn’t vote in favor of the proposal in front of us.”
Sawatzke said that he has opened preliminary talks with the Tri-Cap transit system, which includes Stearns, Benton and, most recently, Sherburne County, about potentially taking on Wright County now that talks with Trailblazer have broken off. He doesn’t view the situation as competition, but rather an alternative for the county to look into while cities inherit discussions with Trailblazer.
“I see it as we’re running on parallel tracks,” Sawatzke said. “If the cities want to enter into an agreement with Trailblazer, we no longer have a role in that. What we can do is try to come up with an option that they might want to consider. We still have 60 days to get something done.”
In other items on the agenda, the board:
PRESENTED plaques to members of the Wright County Highway Department after winning two awards from the Minnesota Asphalt Pavement Association for road projects on CSAH 75 and CSAH 10. Of the 87 counties in Minnesota, only three such awards were available and Wright County won two of them.
ACCEPTED the low bid of $35,497 from Ernst General Construction for the remodeling of the former sheriff’s department area of the county courthouse.
APPROVED a detour agreement with MnDOT for road life that will be consumed on CSAH 36 and CSAH 19 for the I-94 design-build project.
SET a committee of the whole meeting for 11 a.m. Tuesday, May 20 to discuss stronger enforcement to bring non-conforming feedlots into operational compliance with the county’s feedlot ordinance.
APPROVED installation of carp fences during the spring on County Ditch 10 near Lake
Ann. Carp have been using the ditch system to get into the lake during spawning season. It is hoped that the installation of the fences will keep the invasive fish species from spreading further in the lake.
APPROVED a request to add an additional five years to the loan given through the Wright County Economic Development Partnership to Cinch Systems of St. Michael. A balloon payment was scheduled for April and the request was made to extend the loan, which was already approved by the bank involved with the loan and the St. Michael Economic Development Partnership.