Drivers face long drives, long lines to get MN licenses
by Theresa Dawson for PiCK News
Any driver from the Hinckley or Sandstone area looking to take the written exam or driver’s test may face as much as an 80-mile drive or more to find a testing facility.
“We don’t do driver’s exams here. You will have to go to St. Cloud, Duluth or Arden Hills,” may be heard or posted at the local offices. Because of COVID-19, long lines and possible long drives can be expected.
As usual there will be a host of documentation necessary based on your licensing needs. It is best to consult the Minnesota Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) site when considering what documentation to take. There is even a preregistration which can help to make your processing smoother.
It also may be wise to call your local DMV to inquire exactly what services they provide.
Waiting in line for an hour or more at the Midtown Square site in St. Cloud may be expected.
Gerriann Kolles from Buffalo, Minn., recently visited the Midtown Square site with her son who needed to take his driver’s exam. They were in line for an hour and were concerned it could have been longer. She had heard from others they had waited for several hours.
Jane Wells was with her granddaughter who was taking her driver’s exam. She arrived at 6:45 a.m. and was through the line at 8:40 a.m.
At the first desk, the clerk provides a code for Quick Response (QR) which comes back with a text and a number in line. Then there can be an hour wait or more to receive a text saying, “You’re invited.”
There is no waiting room with seats, so most people go to their cars to wait, or find something to do in town. Once the invitation comes, each person who enters the office is required to wear a mask, have their temperature taken and maintain social distancing.
There is a wait to check proper documentation and then a photo will be taken. If documentation is correct, then the test is administered.
If the test is passed, then it is on to the next line and the next wait. However, if any documentation is not accurate or the test is not passed, there will be another day spent traveling long distances with long waiting lines.
To eliminate the extra stress and extra time, it is best to check the DMV site for all documentation needed.
Also, the Minnesota driver’s manual is online.
The test is 40 questions and is daunting if the manual has not been reviewed prior to the test. The manual can also be found on the DMV site. In order to better prepare, there are also practice test sites online.
If registration, title transfer, tags or license renewal are the purpose of the visit, there may be another waiting line. Again, it is best to call your local DMV in order to find out what service they provide.
The average wait time for these services at the Pine City site can be anywhere from 15 minutes to nearly an hour or more depending on the time of day and volume of people. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the Pine City site has the line outside – no seats, no protection from the weather and waiting room for only one at a time inside.
The Pine City office has a staff capacity of four at the windows which does facilitate faster processing. The outside wait can be physically stressful, especially if it rains or the temperatures get in the 80s.
Regardless of what is needed at the DMV offices, waiting and social distancing hinder a speedy process. Sending people out of their home territories and into waiting lines, could be considered a questionable practice if the purpose is to “contain” COVID-19.
It seems local testing would be better in order to save taxpayers gas, time and even limit the spread of COVID-19.
Tax assessment boards of appeal may require remote access not available in parts of Pine County
by Ailene Croup for PiCK News
Pine County Board, working to conduct its business within the “social distancing guidelines, held a special meeting March 24, 2020 using video- and tele-conferencing tools.
The quality of the video conference portion was mostly unacceptable and at one point the audio was absent from both video and phone for several minutes.
Engineering, social services, assessing, auditor, county attorney, probation, health and human services departments and Commissioner Steve Chaffee reported remotely via video or phone. They praised the efforts of the county’s Information Technology Specialist Ryan Findell who made it possible for them to work from home and outside the boardroom.
Those present at the courthouse for the meeting were Commissioners Matt Ludwig, John Mikrot, Jr., Josh Mohr, Steve Hallan, Administrator David Minke, Office Manager Deborah Grey and Sheriff Jeff Nelson.
Auditor/Treasurer Kelly Schroeder said there are 10 people from her office working remotely from home and the rest of the department is working on rotating shifts to enable distancing.
Schroeder said Pine County’s townships’ and cities’ Boards of Appeal and Equalization (BOAE) need to continue as scheduled. This was her direction from the Minnesota Department of Revenue. Those meetings will be held throughout April.
Many of the townships and cities hold their BOAE meetings at their town halls where they have no internet connection making it impossible to teleconference with those residents wanting to appeal their property tax assessment.
She said the only other option is to have an “open book” BOAE. This would push the residents’ appeal off to June when they would make their appeal to the county board.
The way the law reads, currently, once they have an open book appeal, they must also have open book the following year.
Senator Jason Rarick and Representative Nathan Nelson attended the meeting remotely and said they would present these circumstances to the state legislature to see if they could find emergency measures to address the situation and get around the two-year open book requirement.
Rep. Nelson said the possibility of a “shelter in place” order coming from Governor Walz is being reviewed by the legislature to determine who would an essential worker and exempt from the order.
The county closed its offices to walk-in traffic last week and made the closure official by passing a retroactive resolution 2020-23 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was in response to Governor Walz’ declaration of a peacetime emergency through Executive Order 20-01.
The board also unanimously approved, by roll call vote, Resolution 2020-24 declaring a local emergency for Pine County. The resolution would allow the county to access funding available under the COVID-19 emergency status.
The board has scheduled another special meeting at the Pine County Courthouse on March 31, 2020, at 10 a.m. Remote access is possible, and residents should contact the county administrator for more information on how to join the meeting remotely.
Teleconferencing becomes new norm for Pine County meetings in wake of COVID-19 outbreak
by Ailene Croup for Pick News
The Tuesday, March 17, Pine County Board meeting, held at North Pine Government Center, in Sandstone, was not business as usual.
COVID-19 made it necessary for the county to follow Gov. Tim Walz’ direction and limit the number of people people in attendance to 50 people or less.
There’s always the potential for larger gatherings at board meetings and several agenda items, including two public hearings and a presentation/discussion on the Second Amendment which would have made it impossible to guarantee “social distancing.”
Late into Monday, prior to the Tuesday, March 17, 2020 regular meeting, the agenda was pared down to continue doing necessary county business but to eliminate unnecessary public contact and the possibility of transmission of COVID-19.
Present at the meeting were Chairman Steve Hallan, Commissioners Matt Ludwig and John Mikrot, Jr., County Administrator David Minke, County Attorney Reese Fredrickson, Sheriff Jeff Nelson, Health and Human Services Director Becky Foss, Administrative Secretary Deb Gray and Denise Baran (emergency management).
Attending remotely by phone were Commissioners Steve Chaffee and Josh Mohr, Land and Soil Manager Caleb Anderson, Auditor/Treasurer Kelly Schroeder and PiCK News’ Ailene Croup.
Resolution 2020-22 was unanimously approved. It authorized temporary closure of county facilities to walk-in traffic, until further notice, except at the Pine County Courthouse, in Pine City.
To accommodate those attending the meeting through teleconferencing (by phone), all motions were done by roll call. Each commissioner was called on by district to cast their vote.
One item that remained on the agenda was a resolution supporting giving taxing authority, as a pilot project, to the SWCD.
Legislation is being considered to give Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) levy authority. The resolution of support is for the pilot program testing the levying authority in two counties, Pine and Carlton.
Administrator Minke said the taxing body (SWCD) could use the levy for any legal purpose.
Chairman Hallan said SWCD members are elected officials but do not control the amount of money they receive through the county’s levy. If approved, this legislation would give those elected Soil and Water Supervisory Board the authority to levy what they need to carry out the duties outlined by Minnesota State Statute.
The motion to approve the resolution of support, for the 3-year pilot project, was unanimously approved by a roll call vote.
In other business:
- Ludwig reported on the recommendations by the personnel committee.
- Cancelled were the special Special Committee of the Whole meeting, with Windemere Town Hall as the possible location, planned for April 28, 2020 and the Special Committee of the Whole meeting for Local Government Officials, planned for the evening of April 28, 2020.
- Schroeder reported the resolution approving application for a Department of Natural Resources Trail Grant will be postponed until 2021.
- Caleb Anderson received approval of Resolution 2020-21 from the board which will commit Pine County to be a host site for Minnesota GreenCorps. The county would be required to provide space for the person assigned to the post along with transportation and a computer.
- Hallan gave an East Central Solid Waste Commission (ECSWC) report revealing a new direction for ECSWC. They will be hauling trash with their own trucks from the drop off site in Cambridge. The contracted haulers don’t always take all the trash out on Fridays forcing ECSWC to minimize the fire hazard by cleaning out and hauling and no longer contracting the service.
- Hallan said he had attend Broadband Day at the Capitol and he expected the COVID-19 shutdown of schools, and the inability of some students to submit their work by internet, will have lead to a buildout of broadband.
At the end of the meeting, with input from PiCK News about the necessity of County Recorder services for townships, Hallan said there would need to be “more dire straights” before the county would shutdown services provided at the courthouse. He did not rule out the possibility but also said he expected the next regularly scheduled county board meeting to take place much as this one had with their intent to improve the teleconferencing quality.
Minke said those public hearings that did not take place will be reposted, published and rescheduled when gathering restrictions are back to normal.
He encouraged residents to call ahead when they have business with the county to be sure the business can be completed.
The next regularly scheduled board meeting is April 7, 2020, at the Pine county Courthouse, 10 a.m.
Pine County Townships push back over cost, overreach of county controlled assessing
by Ailene Croup for PiCK News
The threat of the largest one-day November snowfall in nearly two decades did not stop 40 Pine County Township officers, supervisors and assessors from filling the North Pine Government Center, two days before Thanksgiving,
They had received a notice, on Nov. 6, 2019, the Pine County Board of Commissioners would be holding a special meeting on Nov. 26, 2019, for the purpose of “exploring the implementation of a true county assessing system.”
Pine County Assessor-Recorder Lorri Houtsma said, true county assessing would have to be implemented by Dec. 31, 2019, for the county to begin assessing in October 2020 or they would have to wait another year.
PiCK News reporter asked why townships were not notified earlier of this move since Houtsma and Commissioner Steve Hallan had both spoken October 26, 2019 at the Pine County Township Association meeting, where they gave updates on county news. That meeting was two days prior to the county’s special meeting where true county assessing and the county board agreed to the Nov. 26, 2019 special assessment meeting.
The county board had another chance to tell townships of their intent to take over assessing a day after the special meeting when they met at the Nov. 29, 2019 bi-yearly local government meeting, hosted by the county board.
Chairman Josh Mohr said the board didn’t learn about the Houtsma’s request until the Oct. 26, 2019 special meeting.
In a rare move, at the May 7, 2019 regular county board meeting, Chairman Josh Mohr had a consent agenda item moved to the regular agenda. The item that was moved was approval of the 2020-2022 assessment contracts. Those are the contracts with the townships and the cities for which the county already does assessing.
When that item was addressed in the regular agenda Auditor-Treasurer Kelly Schroeder gave a powerpoint presentation about why the county should take over all assessing in Pine County. There was no mention of this in the consent agenda item.
Schroeder told the board that, according to state statute the county can take over all the assessing.
Schroeder said, at the May meeting, if the county took over all the assessing, which they call true county assessing, it would cost the taxpayers an additional $283,000.
Currently, three local assessors contract with about half of the county’s 33 townships to do their assessing and the county assessor does the other half.
On Nov. 26, 2019, Houtsma and Schroeder gave these reasons for wanting to take over all assessing.
- They didn’t have enough time to get tax statements out with the deadline of work from local assessors being February 1.
- They also stated they didn’t get enough money from the $1.50 per parcel charge to the townships for the parcels they do not assess.
- Local assessors make mistakes and are not always going out measuring properties.
- Local assessors are not going to get the training they need for the new state required accreditation. The accreditation is required by July 1, 2022.
- And, the local assessors are using off duty Chisago County assessors to help with their assessing.
No evidence was presented of the county’s takeover of assessing being a money saving move for taxpayers whose townships contract with local assessors.
Houtsma said of the three local assessors, she did not know of any who would be taking the updated training to get accredited which would be required by the state in 2022. She said the locally assessed properties weren’t paying their fair share because of improperly assessed parcels.
She informed the board they would need to hire two new assessors in the county office to perform the duties and their salaries would be more than $134,000. They may not be accredited either but the county would get them trained, she said.
One township officer asked if the county could provide training for the local assessors because the county taxpayers would be paying for the county assessors’ training, why not pay for the local assessors classes and the townships could continue with their local assessors.
One local assessor, Bob Brewster, said the classes were quite expensive.
Brewster said there are just as many errors coming from inside the county assessing department as outside. He said whether local or county assessor “We all do our work out of the same manual.”
Several township officers asked about Houtsma’s complaint that local assessors are not correctly assessing properties.
Yearly, at each Board of Appeal and Equalization (BOA) meeting held in the locally assessed townships, the local assessor, a county assessor and the township board are present. Residents of the townships can appeal their assessments at that time.
Township officials asked why they were never told at the BOA meetings that their local assessors weren’t accurately evaluating properties. Local assessors are contracted for the work they do. Brewster said the town boards are his employers.
Arlone Township Clerk Sue Wieczorek asked why commissioners aren’t coming to township BOA meetings to see what’s happening.
Sandstone Township resident Morris Carlson said more government means increased taxes.
Barry and Sandstone Township submitted resolutions opposing county assessing.
“Why is the county sticking their nose in every bit of our business. Stay out of our business,” said Dell Grove Township Board Chairman Dan O’Flanagan.
No more mister nice guy: Pine County Commissioners deliver first "no" vote on property tax default/repurchase abuse case
by Ailene Croup for PiCK News
Commissioners reinforced a decision they made in March 2019 about abuse of repurchase on tax forfeited land, at Tuesday’s regular Pine County Board meeting, held at the North Pine Government Center.
If a property goes into tax forfeiture, the owner can request a repurchase contract and pay 10 percent of the taxes due and the remainder over 10 years at 10 percent interest. Some property owners have entered repurchase contracts and then defaulted on the contract. The county has typically allowed them to get another repurchase contract.
In March 2019, Pine County Deputy Auditor Terry Lovgren explained the repeated abuse by several property owners whose forfeiture was due to non-payment of real estate taxes.
Lovgren told the board last week, concerning denial of repurchasing property, “This is not something we take lightly.“
Those who abuse the process have failed to pay off the contract and taxes numerous times and the property goes into tax forfeiture. They request repurchase of the property and the cycle begins again.
The county board agreed, in March, when there is a default on the contract to repurchase, the decision will be brought to the board which has discretion to decide whether repurchase will be allowed.
Pine County Auditor-Treasurer Kelly Schroeder presented the first case to commissioners since their consensus on abuse of repurchase contracts last spring.
The property owner, Bashir Moghul, was present with his attorney at Tuesday’s board meeting. Repurchase of two properties he owns in Pine County were brought before the board.
Both were purchased in 2003 and have had numerous repurchase contracts and failures to pay those contracts and new taxes over the past 16 years.
Moghul’s attorney, Chelsea Troth, pled his case for repurchase to the board calling Moghul a hard-working man who has already submitted a check to the county to pay the delinquent taxes. She said he was present, ready and willing to pay for the property. She said it was unfair to lose the property because of one year of taxes and it was in the public interest to put the properties back on the tax rolls. She added that Moghul was moving forward with the eviction process for those living in the properties.
Over the past eight years, Pine County Sheriff’s Deputies have been called to the two properties 85 times including calls reporting criminal activity such as warrants on drug possession, counterfeiting of currency and theft.
The board requested, in March, that sufficient background information be provided to them so they could make an informed decision on any repurchase.
State Statute 282.241 authorizes the board to deny or approve the request for repurchase while taking into account whether an undue hardship or injustice would be created by denying the repurchase.
Moghul’s properties had their repurchase contracts cancelled on July 15, 2019.
Schroeder said the staff’s recommendation is, “Denying the repurchase request because it will not serve the public interest and there is no undue hardship or injustice to remedy.”
Pine County Attorney Reese Fredrickson referenced Moghul’s court history and the county’s law enforcement resources being used to serve warrants and investigate complaints.
Pick News researched Moghul and found 57 criminal/traffic petty case records beginning back in 1996, in multiple counties including Hennepin, Anoka, Ramsey and Isanti County. Also discovered were 93 cases under Civil, Family and Probate Case Records in Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka, Scott and Pine County beginning in 1995 with a personal injury case.
Commissioners commented on the case, with Chairman Josh Mohr stating that contracts had been abused and the standard is the public interest and undue hardship.
Commissioner Steve Chaffee said the county goes through the repurchase process and then again in four years when the property owner doesn’t pay, they start all over.
Mohr made a motion to deny Moghul’s repurchase which was seconded and unanimously approved 5-0.
MN Voters must reveal their party preference
to receive ballot at presidential primary election
by Ailene Croup for PiCK News
Voting should be uncomplicated to encourage people to get to the polls and vote.
Politicians and special interest groups never fail to bring up how voting should be sacred and tamper-proof.
It may seem like politicians are getting a head start on the 2020 elections, bashing their opponents and promoting themselves. Voters will begin suffering through combative and shameful television advertising earlier than usual with Minnesota Legislature’s new edict of March presidential primaries.
Minnesota State Legislators and Governor Dayton decided they needed to complicate the process one more time. There will be two primaries. There will be a presidential primary on March 3, 2020, and a primary for all the other elected offices on August 11.
When a voter walks up to the registration table at the presidential primary, they will be asked to choose a party. They will be handed a ballot from one of four major parties: Republican, Democrat, Legal Marijuana Now Party or Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party.
For those voters residing in a mail-in ballot precinct, and there are quite of few of those in Pine County, each voter will receive four ballots by mail. But, they can only use one of the ballots. They will have to pick the party of their candidate and vote on that ballot only.
Absentee voters must also request a ballot for one party.
No more confidential voting in the presidential primary.
Pine County Auditor Treasurer, Kelly Schroeder, told PiCK News after the Sept. 3, 2019, county board meeting, she and county staff will be attending educational classes about the presidential primary. She confirmed there is likely to be concern about residents having to announce their party before receiving a ballot.
This will bring about resistance from voters who may say they do not want to tell anyone the party of their choice. It could cause disruption at the polls when voters are told they will not receive a ballot unless they choose a party.
Separate presidential primaries have been held before, in Minnesota. The first in 1916, was held on March 14, with three parties on the ballot, Republican, Democrat and the Prohibition Party.
On March 18, 1952, there was a separate presidential primary with candidates in the Democratic and Republican Party.
Four years later, Estes Kefauver won the bid for the Democrats and Dwight Eisenhower won the Republican bid on March 20, 1956.
In 1992, April 27, there was a closed presidential primary for Independent Republican Party, which means only registered party members could vote in the Republican Party’s primary. The Democrats also participated in the primary but it was called a “beauty contest” because the DFL delegates were already chosen at the Democratic caucuses on March 3, of that year.
Minnesota is one of 14 states holding primaries on Super Tuesday March 3, 2020. Primaries for all other elected offices in Minnesota will be held on August 11, 2020.
A Voting and Elections Forum will be held at Pine Technical Community College, in Pine City, on Monday, Sept. 16, 2019, from 11 a.m. until noon. Attending will be MN Secretary of State Steve Simon, Pine County Auditor-Treasurer Kelly Schroeder, Government and History Faculty Phil Arg, Ph.D. and Student Senate Representative Joshua Dake.
Deadly EIA confirmed in Pine County animal
Ailene Croup for PiCK News
Equine infectious anemia (EIA), a viral disease affecting horses, donkeys, and mules was confirmed by a Minnesota veterinarian in Pine County on Thursday, August 8. The veterinarian reported the affected horse was tested as part of routine screening shortly after being purchased from another Minnesota premises. Animal health officials quarantined the premises and the horse was euthanized. They are investigating to identify any additional potentially exposed horses. EIA poses no known risk to people.
PiCK News contacted Pine County Veterinarian Delores Gockowski to give more detailed information about EIA.
Though horses require Coggins testing before being exhibited at an event, trail rides don’t necessarily require testing, Gockowski said.
“I tell people, ‘You sell a horse, you do the test.’”
She said,”Losing a horse can be heartbreaking because they’re more than just a service animal.”
There are three forms of EIA, she explained. With the acute form of EIA, the animal gets sick and dies quickly because the disease wipes out the red blood cells.
In the chronic form of EIA, the animal gets sick and then gets well over and over until the animal dies.
In the unapparent carrier form, they never know the animal has EIA.
“I advise my clients to do the EIA test before buying an animal. And, anytime you go on a trail ride, consider whether or not the animals on the ride have been tested.”
The Minnesota Board of Animal Health requires EIA infected horses be euthanized or quarantined for life because there is no vaccine or treatment, and once a horse is infected it remains a carrier for life and may not display any clinical signs. Horses must have a negative blood test for EIA (Coggins test) within 12 months of importation into Minnesota or before being exhibited at a public event.
“The Board’s testing rules are in place to survey for this disease and prevent it from spreading,” said Equine Program Director, Dr. Courtney Wheeler. “Even if you own a horse that never leaves your property, we encourage testing for EIA routinely and avoiding shows or events where there are no testing requirements.”
EIA is primarily spread through horse and deer fly bites. People can also spread it between horses by using contaminated needles or other equipment not sanitized after working with infected horses, mules or donkeys.
Biosecurity is the best way to prevent many diseases like EIA. Some best practices include insect and pest control to reduce potentially infected flies from biting animals. Other measures, like cleaning and disinfecting equipment and supplies, and isolating new horses until they’re tested for EIA are recommended. Minimizing or eliminating contact between non-exposed and infected horses is instrumental in preventing spread of the disease.
Pine County Engineer LeBrun wants board to renew transit tax before its sunset in 2026
by Ailene Croup for PiCK News
Pine County Engineer Mark LeBrun encouraged the Pine County Board, at the regular August meeting, to look at renewing the transit tax before the end of it’s 10-year life. Extending the transit tax can be done before projects are completed. Road projects had to be defined before the transit tax could be approved in August of 2026.
The $10 per vehicle Wheelage Tax was cancelled at that time and replaced by the transit tax.
The .5 percent transit sales tax began being added to goods and services in the county on Jan. 1, 2017. Since that date through July 10, 2019, the county has collected $2,541,941 in transit sales tax. It is set to continue until $8,450,000 has been collected or no longer than 10 years.
LeBrun told PiCK News the board can renew the tax and extend that ending date at any time. Projects can be added and removed. He said if they were removed they would be moved and placed under regularly funded projects.
Commissioner Steve Hallan said the county is collecting more money than anticipated.
“The economy must be good,” he said.
Hallan said the county will have collected the total project funding in seven to eight years and the board should look at what they want to do with a resolution. He said they could stop the resolution and start another one but they shouldn’t wait until the last month.
Commissioner Matt Ludwig asked how close they are getting on estimated costs for the projects that are being funded by the transit tax.
“We’re in the ballpark,” LeBrun said.
Here is a partial list of items and services Pine County residents saw tax increases on beginning in 2017:
- Building materials, supplies and equipment sold to contractors, subcontractors and builders.
- computer software
- taxable candy and soft drinks
- dining out
- delivery charges including shipping and handling for taxable items and services
- charges to produce, fabricate, print or process
- installation labor - building cleaning and maintenance
- motor vehicle towing, washing and rustproofing
- pet grooming,
- parking services
- pay television services, pay-per-view, direct satellite
- fees for athletic clubs
- garbage service
- alcohol -
- plus an increase in all taxable items purchased at a grocery store such as toilet paper and paper towels
Pine County Commissioners approve extending low interest loans for septic system upgrades
by Ailene Croup for PiCK News
Residents can continue to apply to Pine County for loans to upgrade their septic systems.
Pine County Commissioners passed a resolution, at last week’s regular meeting, to amend the 2016 Clean Water Partnership Loan Agreement with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA.
The county already had a low income loan program in 2016 to assist residents with septic system upgrades when they approved the original resolution.
A $600,000 bond was also approved by the board in August 2016. It’s purpose was to repay the MPCA clean water partnership loan.
It is a low-interest loan program to replace non-compliant septic systems.
Land and Resource Manager Caleb Anderson told the board over the past three years, 44 non-compliant systems have been replaced. He told commissioners the county needs a little more time because there are residents who have applied for the loan and have been approved. The original loan program was for three years and allows for an extension of one year.
Anderson also asked that an additional $300,000 be available for loans. To date, $445,764.81 of the original loan has been used.
He also said the department did not know how quickly the original fund would be depleted. There is a 2 percent charge on the loan and a 3 percent charge for administration of the loan by the county, Anderson explained.
Pine County Administrator David Minke presented a second quarter budget update.
He told commissioners expenditures “look really good for the middle of the year.”
According to his chart of expenditures, of the 20 county departments, five are over 50 percent in expenditures at mid-year. They are Information Technology (IT), Attorney, Recorder (at 70 percent), Sheriff and Probation.
Minke said overtime in the salaries and wages fund was at 60 percent. He said most of that overtime is generated by the sheriff’s department operations and jail.
Pine Co. joins opioid lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies
by Ailene Croup for PiCK News
Pine County Attorney Reese Fredrickson explained to commissioners, at lhe July 2, 2019 regular meeting, the benefits of joining lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies to recover the costs incurred by the county due to the opioid epidemic.
Fredrickson provided statistics which spelled out the cost to Minnesotans.
The statistics showed the increase in deaths from prescription painkillers between 1999 and 2014, in Minnesota, were directly related to the quadrupled sales of opioid prescriptions during those years. Opioid overdoses have increased 200 percent. In 2017, 401 Minnesotans died of opioid overdoses.
The cost to counties include health care for treatment, increased law enforcement costs for opioid related crimes, equipment and training for lifesaving Narcan dosing by emergency services, drug-related criminal activity requiring additional law enforcement and related increases in child welfare services.
“Deaths from opioid overdoses outnumber deaths from gun shots and motor vehicle accidents combined,” Fredrickson told the board.
Law firms contacted Pine County about joining the lawsuits, which have been initiated across the United States. There is no cost to the county to join the suit, Fredricson said.
Commissioner Steve Chaffee asked if the purposes of the lawsuits were to get rid of the opioids completely. Fredrickson did have an answer but said bankrupting the pharmaceutical companies could be the outcome.
Opioids are still being prescribed by doctors. What’s to prevent the pharmaceutical companies from increasing the price in response to the suits, PiCK News reporter Ailene Croup asked.
Fredrickson said the pharmaceutical companies have made billions and billions of dollars and increasing the cost of the drugs could happen.
Commissioner Matt Ludwig asked if there was a reason for “jumping in” to join the lawsuit.
Fredrickson said it might be better to join the lawsuit sooner than later in case the lawsuit settles early.
Commissioner Steve Hallan asked If the county were to be awarded a settlement, could the money go toward stopping addiction.
“Absolutely,” was Fredrickson’s response.
In 2018, there were 582 victims of addiction, Health and Human Services Director Becky Foss told the board. She added, in Pine County, methamphetamine and alcohol are still the number one abused substances.
The board voted unanimously to join in the opioid lawsuits.
Sheriff Jeff Nelson told PiCK News deputies are trained to deliver lifesaving Narcan. They have even given Narcan to the same victim twice in six hours.
He said if someone encounters a person who they suspect has overdosed, and Narcan is not available, the best thing they can do is to give the victim airway support.
The Minnesota Department of Health (MNDH) just released preliminary data from 2018 which shows a decline in opioid death from 2017 to 2018.
MNDH included this statement from Tony Lourey.
Human Services Commissioner Tony Lourey recognized the positive trend, but believes more work needs to be done. “Minnesota is working to end the opioid crisis by investing in a range of prevention, emergency response, treatment and recovery strategies,” Lourey said. “The decrease we’re seeing in opioid deaths tells us our approach is the right one. We must continue to help those who are struggling with addiction and stop the damaging effects illicit opioid use has on people, families and communities.”
Pine County Commissioners approve $65,000 settlement in one of the three known lawsuits against the county
by Ailene Croup for PiCK News
The new North Pine Government Center in Sandstone, built to house some of Pine County government’s offices such as Health and Human Services and Veteran’s Services, will open in June.
Pine County Board, which will meet for its second monthly meeiing in the new building, held its last regularly scheduled meeting at the Pine County History Museum in Askov, Tuesday, May 21, 2019.
The meeting ended with two closed sessions.
When the board reconvened after the first closed session, they voted to approve a settlement in the lawsuit brought against Pine County by former County Recorder Tamara Tricas.
Tricas, who had worked for the county for 24 years and had been the Pine County Recorder since 2003, filed suit against Pine County after being terminated from her position.
According to Tricas’ 2017 pretrial statement of case:
“On December 7, 2016, Tricas was called into Schroeder’s office (County Assessor Kelly Schroeder). Human Resources Director Ms. Connie Mikrot (“Mikrot”), was also present. Without warning, Tricas was told that her job had been eliminated by the County Board and that her responsibilities were terminated effective immediately.”
In the statement of the case, Tricas indicated what led to the termination was her request to take her autistic son to the Fraser Academy one day a week for treatment.
At last week’s board meeting, commissioners approved a settlement with Tricas.
The news release handed out after the closed meeting stated the Recorder’s position was eliminated due to a “budget deficit” and the action “has saved the county over $90,000 per year.”
It also stated there was a summary judgement by Judge Michael J. Davis who ruled in the county’s favor on three of the four claims brought by Tricas. They were the claim of age discrimination, invasion of privacy and FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) interference.
“The remaining claim, FMLA retaliation, was set for a jury trial in June 2019. In the judge’s summary judgement ruling, he noted that it was not clear if the position was eliminated for lack of work or for budget issues, and for that reason the issue should be presented to a jury.”
The parties reached a tentative agreement in the court-mandated settlement conference on May 15, 2019 subject to the County Board’s approval.
“The settlement pays Tricas and her attorney $65,000. The county will contribute $21,500 of the amount and the Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust will provide $43,500. Under the settlement agreement, neither party admits to any liability and Tricas releases any and all claims and agrees to dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice. The settlement is made solely to avoid additional attorney’s fees and costs which would be incurred to proceed to trial which could exceed the settlement amount.”
The next closed meeting concerned the county’s taking by eminent domain of a portion of the James and Wilda Obey property in rural Munch Township. A judge upheld the county’s case for eminent domain, and a hearing to determine Obey’s damages was held May 1. A panel of appointed land commissioners will decide the amount Obeys will be paid for their land, the overseeing Land Trust and the landowners who access their properties via the Obey’s land.
Commissioners had no decision on the Obey’s case when they reconvened at last week’s county board meeting.
PiCK News learned the county is also embroiled in another lawsuit.
Jared and Wendy Rosati have filed suit against Pine County, Pine County Department of Health and Human Services, Rebecca Foss as Director of Pine County Department of Health and Human Services, Pine County Sheriff’s, Jane Doe (the Reporter) and Jeff Nelson as Sheriff of Pine County Sheriff’s Office.
The “Plaintiff’s Statement of the Case” begins with, “In 1998, 2006, and 2014, Jared Rosati ran for Pine County Sheriff on a platform critical of Pine County government.
The claim concerns an 80-acre property and its sale to the Rosatis by a woman, a longtime friend and neighbor of the Rosatis, who had been removed from her home by Pine County Health and Human Services.
The Rosatis are suing for $1 million claiming Statutory Damages of $150,000, Past Emotional Trauma/Stress/Anxiety $300,000, Future Emotional Trauma/Stress/Anxiety $300,000, Tarnished Reputation $300,000, Attorney’s Fees $30,000.
The case was filed in United States District Court on Dec. 31, 2019.
Local assessors' charges more economical for townships than Pine County Assessor's
by Ailene Croup for PiCK News
Townships around Pine County just completed their Board of Appeal and Equalization meetings. During those meetings, township residents had the opportunity to appeal the tax assessment on their property in front of their own township board.
At Tuesday’s regular Pine County Board meeting, Auditor/Treasurer Kelly Schroeder gave a powerpoint presentation explaining why there should be an increase in the county’s charge for assessment of county residents’ properties. She and Pine County Assessor Lorri Houtsma also stated mistakes are being made by local assessors as one reason why residential properties should be assessed by the county as opposed to townships hiring their own local assessors.
Currently, 18 of the 33 townships contract with the county to have parcels in their jurisdiction assessed. All townships’ are charged for assessment of commercial properties which is only done by the county. In the townships not assessed by the county, the assessor’s office still charges townships $1.50 for each residential property.
Assessments from local assessors are due to the county by February 1, each year. Schroder said that gives the county only six weeks to get the tax statements printed and it isn’t enough time. She also said the $1.50 for every parcel in the county isn’t enough for all the work the assessor’s office does.
The local assessor isn’t always going out and measuring. Sometimes the building being constructed can be larger than approved with the permit, Houtsma said.
Commissioner Steve Chaffee asked about the new licensing required by the state for local and county assessors.
Schroeder told commissioners,”So, the three local assessors that we’ve had in this county for years, have pretty much all said they’re not going to go through the new licensing. However, now all of a sudden this year we have two Chisago County employees who now are going to do local assessing in Pine County.”
PiCK News asked one of Pine County’s three local assessors to comment on the new licensing. She said she intends to go through the licensing process and it really isn’t a difficult procedure and that the new licensing isn’t required for three years. Fisher also said that over the years she has been assessing, the local assessors have been doing more and more of the work.
Chisago County assessors, who are licensed and work in their assessor’s department, are “moonlighting” to assess properties in Pine County, Schroeder informed the board. She objected to assessors from another county taking that money from this county rather than paying Pine County assessors. Schroeder who was the Pine County Assessor before being appointed Auditor/Treasurer is a resident of Isanti County. Houtsma, who was appointed to replace her, lives in Kanabec County. She has worked in the Pine County assessor’s office for several years.
Schroeder questioned why any township would use an assessor other than the county’s assessor as she looked toward reporter Ailene Croup, who is also a Pine County Township Clerk.
Croup responded, “Because it’s cheaper.”
The local assessor who spoke to PiCK News is not a resident of Pine County, has been assessing properties in seven townships in Pine County for many years. She said the local assessors from Chisago County helped out a local assessor with assessing townships where one of the assessors has contracts. They are licensed and qualified.
Local assessors charge townships approximately $6 per parcel for assessment according to the power point presentation. The county bills separately for their charge which can be $1.50 per parcel to $2.37 per parcel. Schroeder said the county’s charge depends on how many commercial properties are in that jurisdiction. The county assessor also assesses city properties.
The powerpoint showed the Pine County Assessor charging $8.75 to $12 per parcel for township assessment contracts.
She asked the board to increase the parcel assessment price by 25 cents.
Commissioner Steve Hallan said all properties should be assessed in the same manner to make it fair.
There are 30,503 parcels in Pine County. The county assesses 19,897 and local assessors do 10,636 parcels.
Schroeder’s report outlined the statutes which allow the county taking over all the assessments. The county board may, by resolution, appoint an assessor and terminate the local assessors according to the statute.
Schroeder also told the board they would need to increase the budget to accommodate another employee if they had 4,000 more parcels to assess.
Schroeder said if the county went to “true county” assessing where the county assessed all properties, it would cost the taxpayers and additional $283,000.
The board approved increasing the assessment charges 25 cents per parcel.