Friday, February 25, 2011

Still Getting Up to Speed...

Part of what I enjoy most about my new job as County Commissioner is the high learning curve.  It's been interesting to meet with the various departments and service providers in an effort to learn about the work they do.  My overall goal is to meet with every department head and staff.  This past month, I was able to connect with a few more!

Crime Victim/Witness Services
Just off of the County Attorney's Office is the Crime Victim/Witness Services office for Cook County.  When I poked my head inside the door, I was greeted by Coordinator Susan Maijala and given an overview of the services she provides.  Established in 2004, the Crime Victim/Witness Services program was created to assist victims with the physical, emotional and financial hardships caused by criminal victimization.  Examples of general crimes include theft, forgery, robbery, non-domestic assault, harassment, terroristic threats, vandalism, burglary, homicide and arson.  If you or someone you know has been a victim of a crime and needs help, call 218/387-3669.

Veteran's Services Officer
County Veteran's Service Officers (VSO) were established in 1946 to assist veterans and their families in obtaining benefits and services accrued through military service.  If you are a veteran, widow of a veteran, child of a deceased or disabled veteran, or parent who lost a son or daughter in military service, your County VSO can assist you by providing information on a wide range of topics including benefits, education, insurance, health care, home loans, other.  Veterans can rely on their VSO to either advocate for them or refer them to somebody who can.  Clarence Everson is the VSO for both Grand Portage and Cook County.  With a big smile on his face, he told me he loves his job, so don't be shy about calling him at 218 475 2780 or 218 370 0646.  Everson's email is

Recorder's Office
Last week I had a tour of the Cook County Recorder's Office.  County Recorder Dusty Nelms showed me the front office and then showed me around the backroom where they still put to good use several beautiful old wood tables, chairs and work tables.  The mission of the Recorder's Office is simple and clear:

"To promptly record, file and preserve documents accurately in an efficient, responsible and professional manner for posterity and legal purposes.  The County Recorder in Cook County is the custodian of all legal records pertaining to real estate, birth, death, marriage, military discharges, notary public, Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) and tax liens.  This office also serves as a Passport Agent for the U.S. Department of State Passport Services.   All records pertaining to real estate are public records and may be viewed upon request.  Upon receipt of payment, the Recorder can process requests for copies of documents or certified copies of vital records.  We handle some research requests or can assist you with your research."

The documents meticulously and carefully maintained in the Recorder's Office tell so much of the story about the people of Cook County.  It not only provides an important legal purpose, but is an interesting place to dig into local history. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Snowfall Around the State Impacts County's Agenda

Snowfalls from Minneapolis to Alexandria impacted the County Board Agenda for today's scheduled Board Meeting, Public Hearing and Monthly Worksession.  Snowed in and unable to travel safely to Grand Marais were Tom Wacholz and Rob Barse of ORB Management, Contract Surveyor Wayne Hensche, and MCIT Representatives Robyn Sykes and Jennifer Wolf. 

Public Comment
No member of the Public opted to address the County Board during the Public Comment period of the meeting.

North House Folk School (NHFS)
Greg Wright, Director of NHFS, gave a very positive overview of the state of North House Folk School.  Highlights of Wright's report included notice that this year marks the 10th Unplugged Music Festival and will include NPR's featured music radio show Mountain Stage.  Wright also reported on the MN Lake Superior Coastal Program Grant with the City of Grand Marais, their "Raise the Roof" project and finally a financial overview of 2009 thru 2011.

Mush for a Cure Special Event Permit
The County Board approved a Special Event Permit for the Mush for a Cure Fun Run fundraiser to find a cure for breast cancer.  The Board agreed to waive the fees for this event scheduled for March 11-12, 2011 on the Gunflint Trail.

Patrol Vehicle Replacement 
The Board approved the Sheriff's request to purchase and replace two patrol vehicles.  The Sheriff's Department will purchase (2) 2011 Ford Crown Victoria police package vehicles from Elk River Ford as they have the state bid for these automobiles. 

Lease Agreement for Eagle Mountain Tower
The County Board tabled a request from the Sheriff's Department to renew Lease Agreement No. 9623 for an additional 5 years from April 1, 2011 through March 31, 2016.  The Board had several questions regarding this lease and how it fits into the overall needs of the County for communications and towers.  Because Sheriff Falk was absent from today's meeting and unable to answer our questions, we tabled the discussion until the next Board Meeting.

Town of Tofte Rock Stockpile
The Board approved a Conditional Use Permit to temporarily stockpile approximately 40,000 cubic yards of blasted rock at the abandoned Tofte Cook County Airport.  This approval is an amendment to a CUP originally granted for 30,000 cubic yards.  No additional material will be transported to this site.

Poplar River AUAR 2011 Update
Tim Nelson, Planning Director/Solid Waste Officer, notified the Board that the Poplar River AUAR will need to be considered in 2011 and that options include letting it lapse, revising or renewing the agreement.  The Board directed Nelson to get input from the Poplar River Management Board and Soil & Water Department before making any decisions.

Solid Waste Management Plan
Tim Nelson also reported that the 10 year plan for Solid Waste Managment is due in 2011.  This report will be developed in-house and will consider, among other issues, recycling, hazardous waste, electronic waste, and waste transfer.

PUBLIC HEARING for Judge Magney Plat
A Public Hearing to assess the costs for the Judge Magney plat was held.  (3) members of the Public expressed concerns about the allocation of costs to property owners, stressing a need for fairness.  Due to bad weather, County Contract Surveyor Wayne Hensche was unable to attend today's Public Hearing, so the Hearing will be continued at 11:00 am on March 15, 2011. 

Gitchee Gami Bike Trail
Kevin Johnson and Joe Russell of MN DNR Parks and Trails updated the County Board on the engineering design, construction and funding of the Gitchee Gami Bike Trail that runs along the North Shore of Lake Superior.  (2) small segments of the Trail are planned for construction in the summer of 2011 in Schroeder and Lutsen.  The 8 mile stretch of Trail west of Grand Marais to Cascade River State Park is currently in the Planning Phase. 

Community Center Update
ORB Management was unable to participate in today's Board Meeting as they were snowbound in Alexandria.  As Chair of the Steering Committee, I presented the list of Steering Committee Members for County Board approval.  And, in ORB's absence I reported on the recent progress of the Committee noting that we are deep into the Design Phase and the decision-making process for programming to be included in the new Community Center facility.  ORB will be updating the County Board, ISD 166, the City of Grand Marais, and the Grand Portage Tribal Council at their Joint CCST Meeting at 4 pm on Thursday, February 24 in the Commissioner's Room.  As always, the Public is welcome at these meetings.

Citizen Appointments  
The Board unanimously approved the appointments of Johnathen Smith to the Cook County Planning Commission and Keck Melby to the Governor's Council on MN Coastal Program.

County Board Worksession on Issues Regarding public Meetings and the Open Meeting Law
The County Board Worksession for February was postponed because Robyn Sykes and Jennifer Wolf of MN Counties Intergovernmental Trust were unable to get to Grand Marais due to the snowstorm in Minneapolis.  This meeting will be rescheduled at a later time.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Human Services and County Board Meetings

Cook County Human Services Board
A monthly meeting of the Human Services Board is held the 3rd Tuesday of each month at 8:30 am.

Statewide Health Improvement Project (SHIP)
Kristen De Arruda Wharton and April McCormick, SHIP Coordinators from Cook County and Grand Portage, provided an update on their respective programs.  Although these programs are funded independently of each other, they collaborate where it makes sense.  The SHIP program was established by the MN Department of Health to help Minnesotans live better and targets tobacco use, physical inactivity and poor nutrition in communities throughout the state.  Joan Farnum wrote an informative article about the SHIP Program in the current issue of Highway 61.

Director's Report 
Human Services Director Sue Futterer reported on both the Local Public Health Association of MN (LPHA) and Minnesota Association of County Social Service Administrators (MACSSA) legislative priorities.  Futterer also reported on the evaluation recently completed by the Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) done for Medical Non-emergency Transportation and the Region 3 Redesign Update noting that costs for this effort are still varying by ~20%. 

Futterer invited the new and existing members of the Human Services Board to participate in the "Public Health Update for New Local Elected Officials Orientation to Public Health" to be held on March 28 via ITV from the Courthouse.  I know that I'm looking forward to this Session sponsored by the State Community Health Services Advisory Committee and the MN Department of Health Office of Performance Improvement.  The world of Public Health is complex and trainings such as this are certainly appreciated by me.

Fiscal Supervisor's Report
Jan Parish elaborated on Sue Futterer's report on Non-emergency Medical Transportation, both noting that it is somewhat cumbersome.  Parish also reported that effective March 1, 2011 additional low income adults will be eligible for Medicaid benefits when MN begins implementing the expanded Medical Assistance (MA) program.

Board Actions
The Board approved the appointment of Edwina Hertzberg for a 3-year term on the Public Health & Human Services Advisory Committee through 2013.

The Board also approved (4) Service agreements for the year 2011, including Home Delivered Meals (aka Meals on Wheels).

County Board Meeting

Immediately after the Human Services Board Meeting, the County Board held its regularly scheduled meeting.

County Board of Appeal and Equalization Meeting
On County Assessor Mary Black's recommendation, the Board set the 2011 County Board of Appeal and Equalization Meeting for 6:30 pm on Tuesday, June 21 to hear appeals from property owners who disagree with their assessed value.

Establishing a Boundary Commission
Wayne Hensche, Cook County contract surveyor, was unable to attend today's meeting to discuss the possible need to establish a Boundary Commission for the SAG/Top of the Trail area.  In the past, a request such as this has come as a request from the Public.  This issue will be added to the agenda for March.

ORB Management 
After a healthy discussion, the County Board voted unanimously to accept the proposed Master Consulting Agreement between ORB Management and Cook County.  Under this Agreement, the County may enter into Sub-Agreements with ORB to consult on public infrastructure projects funded through the 1% Sales Tax (passed by Voter Referendum in 2009).  ORB's role as a Consultant may vary depending upon the project, but will likely include assisting in the management and administration of some or all of the 1% Sales Tax Projects.  Under this Agreement, ORB  will be paid a consulting fee not to exceed 2.5% of the total cost of each individual 1% Project plus reimbursables (i.e., fees on a $1M project would be $25,000).  Either party may suspend or terminate this Agreement upon (60) days written notice to the other party.

ORB also provided a brief update on the Community Center Project, currently in the Design Phase of the project.  The Community Center Steering Committee is meeting from 8-5 pm Wednesday (Commissioner's Room) and again Thursday from 3-4 (Community Center) to discuss the programing, facility design and location of the new Community Center.  A more detailed presentation will be given to the County Board on February 22.  The Public is welcome to attend any of these meetings.

The County Board voted unanimously for Tim Scannell and Braidy Powers to draft for review and approval a proposed Sub-Agreement for ORB Management to assist in the management and administration of the Library Expansion project.

Exterior Courthouse Lighting 
The County Board approved a request from Maintenance Director Brian Silence for new exterior lighting fixtures to replace the damaged and not-very-effective lighting that exists on the east side of the Courthouse.

Reports and Concerns
-  Dave Saethre was appointed to the Airport Commission.
-  The County Auditor/Treasurer's Office continues to explore the pros and cons of assuming EDA financial and payroll functions.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Construction Management and ORB

I appreciated the Letter to the Editor from Gary Wilhelm of Grand Marais in today's Cook County News Herald.  In his letter, Mr. Wilhelm asks several thoughtful and important questions about the role ORB Management is playing in Cook County's 1% Sales Tax Projects.  I'd been tossing around the idea of going into greater detail in my blog about ORB Management's involvement in the 1% Community Center Project and welcome the prompt. I hope the following information is useful in clarifying questions and improving overall understanding of the project.

Cook County 1% Community Center Project

ORB Management Corporation has been hired by Cook County as the Construction Manager and Owner's Representative for the Community Center to be built with 1% Sales Tax Funding (the 1% Sales Tax passed by voter referendum in November 2009).   After careful study, thought and consideration, the Steering Committee and the County Board agreed it was in the County's best interest to hire a Construction Manager/Owner's Representative to be contractually obligated to look out for and advocate for the financial well being of Cook County.  This contractual relationship is vastly different from other options considered, including the more traditional design-bid-build way of using a general contractor.

Over the years, it's become commonplace for construction projects to use the traditional design-bid-build process.  More recently, Cities and Counties (and the private sector) have begun opting for a different approach, "construction management".  Minnesota Cities Magazine published a very informative article about construction management and its advantages in an article entitled "A Construction Alternative".   Cook County has hired ORB Management as their Construction Manager in an Agency Relationship as described in this article. 

As Construction Manager and the County's Owner's Representative, ORB Management will be acting as an advocate for Cook County.  ORB is representing the County, subject to the County Board's final direction and control.  Specifically, acting as our Owner's Representative ORB Management will represent the County throughout the entire Project including Pre-Construction, Design, Construction and Warranty/Start Up.  See Exhibit A thru Exhibit E for more details about the Services provided by ORB.

From my view, the most significant advantages to hiring a Construction Manager to act as our Owner's Representative are:

1.  Control over the project--The County will contract directly with ORB, the Architect and all of the individual contractors. This contractual arrangement allows the County to select the individual contractors for the job instead of having a general contractor make those decisions.  It is important to the Steering Committee and the County Board to give local contractors an opportunity to bid on this project. 
2.  Costs savings--ORB is charging 5% of the total costs of the Project construction which is lower than fees often charged by general contractors, even when combined with the Architect Fees.  At the end of the Design Phase, the Parties may agree to a lump sum payment amount.  ORB will also assist the County in estimating Operating & Maintenance of the proposed facility to ensure we don't build more than we can afford to maintain and operate.
3.  Construction Expertise & Risk Management--Our County Board and Staff does not have the construction experience or expertise required to manage a project of this complexity and magnitude.  It was a prudent decision to hire a qualified construction manager that understands the construction business to reduce the County's financial risk and ensure a quality facility.
4.  Advising the County Board--ORB Management will advise the Steering Committee, County Staff, and the County Board on a regular basis at Steering Committee Meetings and at least monthly at County Board Meetings.

Note:  The Community Center Steering Committee meets at least monthly.  These meetings are posted and the Public is welcome.  We are currently in the Design Phase of the Project, working with Meyer Group/JLG Architects.  As part of the Design Process, we will be hosting Public Meetings to solicit Public input.  These meetings are likely to be scheduled within the next month.

Other 1% Sales Tax Projects

The County Board is also considering using ORB Management on other public infrastructure projects funded through the 1% Sales Tax.  At this time, ORB's role as a consultant is undefined, but could range from assisting in the management and administration of some or all of the 1% Sales Tax Projects or expanding the role to one of Construction Management/Owner's Representative.

ORB has proposed a Master Consulting Agreement for Services to Be Provided under which a series of Sub-Agreements may be made for specific 1% Sales Tax Projects at terms to be negotiated.  ORB  is proposing a consulting fee of 2.5% of the total cost of each individual 1% Project plus reimbursables (i.e., fees on a $1M project would be $25,000).  ORB is on the County Board Agenda for February 15 to present their proposal.

Key ORB Management Personnel on both the Community Center Project and future 1% Sales Tax Projects are Tom Wacholz, Owner/President, Wade Cole, Senior Project Manager, and Rob Barse, Project Technical Manager.

As Chair of the Community Center Steering Committee, I'm passionate about the success of this project on all levels.  I'm also committed to an open and transparent process and opportunity for public input and involvement.  If you're interested in being part of the team, let me know.  We've got a couple of openings on the Steering Committee.

As always, feel free to contact me with your ideas, questions or concerns.  You may reach me by email at or 218 387 2111 (home/office) or 218 370 9833 (cell).

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Catch Up

I've attended several meetings these past (2) weeks and wanted to give you an overview.

Local Radio User's Committee Meeting
On February 1, Sheriff Falk called a meeting of local radio users to discuss the pros and cons of Cook County migrating from the current VHF Radio System Equipment to the State of Minnesota Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response (ARMER) Radio System.  This meeting was well attended by local Fire Departments, EMTs, Public Health, County Representatives, City Representatives, Law Enforcement, etc.  Advantages of going to ARMER--such as improved County-wide communications, improved confidentiality, and regional/statewide interoperability--were identified.  Disadvantages--such as the difficulties associated in changing the way we currently do business, coverage gaps, and costs--were also discussed.  A sub-committee of the Local Users Group (M. Prom, S. Perich, J. Clearwater, S. DuChien, J. Groth, S. Hakes, M. Falk) was created to continue addressing these issues.

Towers Ad Hoc Committee
On February 9, the Towers Ad Hoc Committee met to discuss concerns and issues regarding towers in Cook County.  There is a growing need for technical, administrative and legal support regarding existing towers and towers to be built in Cook County.  There is also a need for a business plan to maximize potential revenues by leasing space on these towers.  Towers play an important role in Public Safety, radio communications and cell phone service, as well as future uses including ARMER, expanded cell phone service and broadband.  Sheriff Falk, Duane Ege, Tim Scannell and Kirk Oberg will work as the core group supporting towers.

Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Association (AEOA)
I attended my first AEOA Board Meeting on February 9 in Virginia, MN at the AEOA Office.  Also representing Cook County on the AEOA Board is Andra Lilienthal from Community Education.  I've appreciated learning more about the AEOA organization these past weeks.  The work they do is far-reaching and touches Cook County in a number of ways including Community Education, Food Shelf, Arrowhead Transit, Head Start, Housing Rehab and more.  If you go to the AEOA website you will learn that "AEOA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and established as a Community Action Program (CAP) for the northeast Minnesota counties of St. Louis, Lake, and Cook.  Service delivery for some programs has extended to the four neighboring counties of Aitkin, Carlton, Itasca, and Koochiching.  AEOA strengthens communities by providing opportunities for people experiencing social and economic challenges."

Windomnet Presentation on Broadband
Today, Dan Olsen from Windom, shared his community's experiences around installing a broadband Fiber Optic Network, aka Windomnet.  It was extremely interesting to hear Olsen talk about the successes and challenges of this undertaking.  Dan--a 27 year telecom industry vet-- shared multiple success stories and the demand from the Windom area business community for Broadband Service.  Today's presentation was sponsored by Cook County Higher Ed, University of MN Extensions' Center for Community Vitality and Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC).  Olsen spoke before a very full Commissioner's Room filled with interested business owners and residents.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Full Agenda at the County Board Meeting

We covered a lot of ground at today's County Board meeting.  Below is a summary of the highlights from my perspective:

Public Comment
No member of the Public opted to address the County Board today.  As a reminder, this time is set aside at the start of each County Board Meeting for members of the Public to bring issues, concerns, questions, or ideas to the County Board.  Whether you are a bit shy or quite seasoned at advocating for your cause, coming before the Board is a powerful way to have your voice be heard.

Trunk Highway 61 Intersection Lighting
County Engineer David Betts and Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) Traffic Engineer Rob Ege shared the MnDOT Strategic Safety Plan Initiative in District 1 which includes plans to install intersection lighting at various trunk highway intersections in Cook County.  MnDOT will install (1) dark sky compliant light fixture at (3) Highway 61 Intersections in Cook County:  CSAH 2 (Sawbill Trail), CSAH 5 (Ski Hill Road), CSAH 7 (West of Grand Marais).  The Board agreed to enter into an agreement with MnDOT to provide power and routine maintenance for these lights; MnDOT will provide major maintenance such as replacement of knocked-down poles and long-term replacements.

Highway Department Winter Maintenance Update 
Highway Department Maintenance Supervisor Russell Klegstad reported that the added personnel and the changes made to the snow removal routes has resulted in getting the County's roads plowed more expeditiously.  He also reported that the Highway Department is making plans to ensure that they have enough salt and sand to get us through this winter season.

Committee Openings
Diane Booth presented the U of M Extension Committee request to have Deb Benedict and Tim Nickolay fill openings on their board.  She also requested that Don Goodell be appointed as the Extension Committee representative on the Community Center Board of Trustees.  The County Board approved both appointments unanimously.

Judge Magney Survey Plat
The County Board approved the plat presented by contract County Surveyor Wayne Hensche for the Magney State Park Citizen Petition.  A Public Hearing is being scheduled for February 22, 2011 at 10 am for the public to assess the costs/acre.  If landowners have any questions about this plat, the assessments, or the process, they should call Cook County Auditor-Treasurer Braidy Powers at 218-387-3646 or Wayne Hensche at 218-387-1172.

Grand Marais Library Expansion Project
John Geissler, Architect from DSGW Architects, along with Librarian Linda Chappell and members of the Library Board presented an overview of their progress to date on the Library Expansion project to be paid for with 1% Sales Tax Funds.  DSGW presented a Project Budget based on a 2767 sf addition for an estimated $1 million.  I stressed the importance of understanding the Operating & Maintenance costs of the proposed addition and building only what the City and County can afford to operate and maintain.

At the request of DSGW and the Library Board, the County Board authorized the Library Board to proceed in seeking construction bids.  There was discussion about how to proceed contractually and whether or not to use a Construction Manager, Owner's Representative or General Contractor, but no decision was made.  The County Board will need to make this decision in early March.

Copies of the Library Expansion project may be seen at the Library.

Office Furniture Request
Requests to purchase new office furniture were made and approved for the Attorney's Office, Planning & Zoning, and the Assessor's Office.  The motion to purchase passed 3-1 with Commissioner Martinson opposed.  (Commissioner Hall was absent from today's meeting and did not vote.)  I really struggled with this decision and spent time yesterday looking at the existing furniture and talking with the department heads requesting the furniture.  Ultlimately, I supported the decision based on the fact that the existing furniture in each office was either broken down or ergonomically dysfunctional.  The furniture will be paid for out of the Building Fund.

Enterprise GIS Software License Agreement
The County Board passed a motion to renew the ESRI Enterprise GIS Software Agreement for (3) years.  Danna MacKenzie and Kyle Oberg were able to negotiate with ESRI to reduce the price of this contract by 50% based on a cost analysis of actual software use vs. purchasing other options.

Blandin Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) Projects
The County Board approved a motion to authorize the expenditure of the MIRC grant budget as approved by the Blandin Foundation.  This grant includes $80,400 in project funds for (8) local projects selected to foster sustainable use and adoption of broadband in order to help create technologically and economically vital rural communities.

Allied Radio Matrix for emergency Response (ARMER) Radio System 
Sheriff Mark Falk and Geo-Comm Representative Rey Freeman presented for approval the ARMER Paticipation Plan for Cook County; the County Board moved to approve the plan.  The Plan will now move forward for approval from the NE MN Regional Advisory Committee (NE RAC), NE MN Regional Radio Board (NE RRB), and the State of MN Radio Board Operations and Technical Committee (OTC).

Project Summary from the Plan: 

Cook County and the public safety entities within Cook County have developed a plan for the replacement of the existing VHF public safety radio systems currently used by those agencies.  A comprehensive radio system analysis was conducted in 2009, which presented options for either continued VHF radio operations, or a migration to the 800 MHz ARMER system.

The primary goals of a new radio communications system are:
-Meet the FCC mandated migration to narrowband (12.5 KHZ) before the January 1, 2013 deadline.
-Provide improved radio system coverage and capacity.
-Replacement of the existing aging VHF radio system equipment.
-Provide expanded county and region wide interoperability between public safety agencies, whether utilizing VHF or 800 MHz.

After a thorough review of the options available, the County has determined that a migration to the 800 MHz ARMER radio system, utilizing the system's multi-use, digital and trunking tehnologies would best meet the county agencies radio communications goals, and will provide the required level of interoperability between public safety agencies in the region.

Funding for the implementation of the ARMER system within Cook County is being considered from local bonding, local levy and grants.