Local economic position at a standstill

by April Scheinoha

    As of right now, economic development will be among many responsibilities handled by staff in the city of Thief River Falls. Pennington County Board Chairperson Cody Hempel provided an update on the plans for city and county economic development at the County Board meeting Tuesday, Oct. 24.
    Hempel said he had recently spoken with City Administrator  Rod Otterness about the matter. “There was just a general conversation,” said Hempel, who noted it involved the contact information for economic development. He was told the city website would list Otterness or Acting Public Works Director Mark Borseth as the contact person for economic development.
    Hempel said he and Otterness had taken good and bad things from the arrangement the two entities had in the past.
    Pennington County, the city and Jobs Inc. formerly paid for the position of economic development director. Christine Anderson, who held the position, resigned from Jobs Inc. on Feb. 1. Her resignation triggered Jobs Inc.’s decision to pull out of the partnership. The position ceased to exist earlier this month. As part of its preliminary 2018 budget, the Pennington County Board designated $10,000 for economic development in the event it is needed. The county contributed that amount to the city in the past.
    City Council had considered the possible creation of an Economic Development Authority. It held a public hearing in August. At that time, most of the individuals providing their opinions encouraged the council to not establish an EDA.
    Commissioners approved applying for a Local Road Improvement Program grant for the proposed bridge near Sanford Medical Center. County Engineer Mike Flaagan said a maximum of $1 million is available.
    The bridge is currently planned over the Red Lake River from County State Aid Highway 8 (east of Challenger Elementary School) to Mark Boulevard (north of Sanford Health). The $6 million project, which includes the potential construction of roundabouts, is slated to be completed in 2020.
    Commissioners are also contemplating whether to build the bridge on CSAH 7, which is located south of CSAH 8. CSAH 7 is located closer to the Thief River Falls Regional Airport, which may lead to some issues with Federal Aviation Administration requirements. The bridge is listed in the 2017-21 Road and Bridge Plan.
    A public hearing was held Monday, Oct. 30 about the proposed bridge. An article about that hearing will appear in the future.
    County Auditor-Treasurer Ken Olson provided an update on the situation with the State Auditor’s Office. He said the State Auditor’s Office had been in his office a week earlier to work on redoing the 2015 county audit. Olson expected that county leaders would learn the results of the recompleted audit at the end of November or the first part of December. County commissioners have yet to learn how much the State Auditor’s Office will charge the county to redo the audit.
    Earlier, the State Auditor’s Office determined that Hoffman, Philipp & Knutson PLLC didn’t provide enough research to reach the conclusions listed in its findings for eight county audits conducted by the firm. The State Auditor’s Office found nothing wrong with the audit numbers.
    Besides Roseau and Pennington counties, affected counties include Clearwater, Hubbard, Kittson, Koochiching, Lake of the Woods and Red Lake. Five other private firms are in the same situation as Hoffman, Philipp & Knutson.
    The State Auditor’s Office  then decided it needed to redo the county’s 2015 audit. It also wanted to do the county’s 2016 audit. County commissioners refused, noting that the county had a contract with Hoffman, Philipp & Knutson. They also questioned how that 2016 audit could be deficient when it hadn’t even been completed yet.
    Olson told commissioners that the State Auditor’s Office was fine with removing the 2016 audit from its engagement letter with the county.
    County Board approved a notice of decision related to the wetland delineation for the Digi-Key expansion project. Fourteen wetlands were identified. Bryan Malone, manager of the Pennington Soil and Water Conservation District, said it appeared all of the wetlands were incidental wetlands.
    Digi-Key is building a one-million square-foot manufacturing and warehouse center on the site of its current western parking lot.
    Commissioners approved paying $1,000 to the Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources to bank 27 credits in the Minnesota Wetland Bank Program. Malone said the full 45.13 credits will be available next year after a final monitoring report is completed.
    The county was able to bank the credits due to some work on 109.17 acres of land it owns in Section 34 of Highlanding Township. The county purchased the property in 1996 with plans to develop a wetland bank.
    Developers can use credits from the wetland bank when they are draining or filling wetlands. Otherwise, they have to find and restore wetland acres on their own. The credits come from previously restored or created wetlands. If the credits aren’t available in the particular county where a project is being developed, the developer would then seek credits from the watershed district. If that option doesn’t exist, the developer would then seek credits from an adjacent county and then an adjacent watershed if none were available from the adjacent county.
    Commissioners accepted the resignation of dispatcher/jailer Shaun Hoffart. Days earlier, Hoffart had joined the Thief River Falls Police Department as a police officer. In a related, separate motion, County Board approved posting his former position.
    The next County Board meeting is scheduled Tuesday, Nov. 14 at 10 a.m. at the Pennington County Courthouse.