breaking news history

Pine County Commissioners approve property tax increase, employee wage increases despite farmer's plea for lower taxes

by Ailene Croup for PiCK News
Pine County Commissioners held their final regular meeting for 2018, last Tuesday, in Askov, and completed their duties required by state law.
According to Minnesota State Statute 275.07 Subd. 1, commissioners are required to adopt their final 2019 property tax levies and their final 2019 budget no later than Dec. 28, 2018.
Following the Pledge of Allegiance, Chairman Steve Hallan opened the public forum.
Sandstone Township farmer, Morris Carlson, asked to speak.
“Guys, I ain’t going to be able to stay farming much longer if you keep doing what your doing. My home place (taxes) went up 34.2 percent. My valuation went $106,000 more. The land - they raised $100 per acre.”
Carlson said the county changed the classification on the two remodeled homes on his property. He and his wife have one and his granddaughter has the other. One was built in 1924 and the other in 1918.
“It’s discouraging. I don’t know what to do,” he added. None of his taxes went down, Carlson explained. Taxes on one house went up 34.1 percent and the other went up 39.2 percent. Net taxes went up over $1,300 on one house and over $400 on the other.
“I’ve worked all my life farming…Please do something,” Carlson pled.
The Carlsons requested to have the county review the increases earlier this year, but they never heard anything more.
“I don’t know what to think. We’ll keep plugging along.”
Commissioner Matt Ludwig thanked Carlson for coming to the board meeting.
Carlson quoted a verse from the Bible. “Now the making of many books, there is no end. That’s the laws, rules, orders and everything else. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter. - Fear God and keep His commandments, Carlson said.
“That’s what’s frustrating to me. We’ve ruled God totally out of the picture. Schools. Society. Government. I guess that’s all I have to say.”
The chapter ends with - For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil. -
Carlson talked about not being in compliance with zoning on a couple tracts of his land. He said he wasn’t “mean” but “firm” when he told Caleb Anderson, who works under land management for the county and reviews residents compliance with the state’s buffer law, that they could not come on his property.
The county has the aerial pictures of his property and Carlson said they will comply if they have to and they were working on it.
“We’ll do the best we can. I guess I wanted it to be at my family’s and my judgement, not someone else telling me what I can and can’t do.”
Hallan asked if Carlson looked at the township and the school tax on his property tax statement saying, “…probably percentage-wise (they) have a bigger increase.”
Sandstone Township has not increased their levy for five years.
When Pine County increases the market value (valuation) of resident’s property, it affects all taxes - school and township based on what the county says is the value of a resident’s property. A resident whose property value increases will pay a bigger portion of the township’s levy even though that levy stays the same.
Carlson thanked the board and left.
Personnel Committee recommendations
Ludwig, who is the board’s representative on the personnel committee, outlined their recommendations.
They included raising the Pine County Board chairman’s salary by $1,200 and keeping “per diem at for certain meetings” at $100. Commissioners and employees will receive mileage reimbursement at the federal rate which is 54.5 cents per mile.
Also, recommended for approval was the county ‘scontribution for health insurance for commissioners, other elected officials and non-union employees. The county will be paying more for employees health insurance in 2019.
The personnel committee also recommended a 6 percent salary increase for County Attorney Reese Fredrickson for a 2019 salary of $116,770 and a 6 percent increase for Pine County Sheriff Jeff Nelson to $105,512.
Also on the list of recommendations was approval of a 3 percent cost of living increase for all non-union and non-elected employees.
Ludwig made a motion to approve the personnel committee’s recommendations and it was unanimously approved 4-0. Commissioner Josh Mohr did not attend the board meeting.
Set 2019 property tax and budget
Hallan said the board had been working on the property tax levy for six months.
Ludwig made a motion to increase the 2019 levy to $18,790,664. It was approved 4-0.
The 2019 property tax increase is 4.9 percent higher than 2018. Commissioners approved a property tax levy decrease in 2012 which remained at $14,075,000 for two years. Every year since 2014, property taxes have gone up totaling more than $4.7 million in increases.
“We’re at a point where the public is pushing back a little,” Ludwig said when they got to the 2019 budget portion of the agenda.
Hallan told the board at a budget meeting, before the preliminary levy was set in September, they would not be using fund reserves to balance the budget which would have resulted in no tax increase.
However, after finalizing the levy, Administrator David Minke said the county would be using general fund reserves to pay for furnishings in the new building, in Sandstone.
In a meeting earlier this year, the board discussed employees in the new building closing their own furnishings . Furnishings totaled nearly $400,000.
The board then approved the 2019 budget 4-0.

Pine Co. Commissioners put finishing touches on restructuring offices, get update on new construction of county building

by Ailene Croup for PiCK News
In October, commissioners approved making Assessor/Recorder Land Manager Kelly Schroeder the auditor/treasurer. Then they began shifting employees into departments and, in some cases, renaming the departments.
Pine County Board voted on the restructuring of county offices, promotions and pay grade increases resulting from making the last of the main floor department heads an appointed position.
The board voted 4-0-1, at the Nov. 20, 2018 meeting to approve these changes. Commissioner Steve Chaffee abstained from voting because Caleb Anderson is his son-in-law.
n the restructuring, Anderson was promoted to Land and Resources Manager at pay Grade 13.
School Districts’ 2165 and 2580 polling places
Under the consent agenda, the board approved a request from Hinckley-Finlayson and East Central School District to approve the two high schools and the Finlayson Elementary School as polling places for school elections.
Because the school districts choose to hold their elections on odd years rather than general election years, the county must approve a designated polling place for those elections.
Schools that hold their elections during the even years would be on the general ballot and the election would be held at each township and city’s polling place.
Because Hinckley-Finlayson and East Central schools to choose to hold elections in their districts on odd years, the resolution approved by the board means there will only be three polling places for the two districts.
New county building in Sandstone
Commissioner Josh Mohr updated the board on the facilities committee meeting and the county’s new building in Sandstone. He told the board framing was underway and they expected to have the building weather-tight by the end of the third week in November. He said the committee also talked about the John Wright Building and that they were working with Representative Jason Rarick, Senator Tony Lourey and Pine County Attorney Reese Fredrickson to get a release from the state on the 20-year lease between the East Central School District and the county.
Meeting closed to discuss litigation in Raymond vs. Pine County
The board closed the regular meeting and reconvened in closed session to discuss the ongoing litigation in Raymond vs. Pine County, et al.
The suit involves a Pine County Deputy who, Nov. 6, 2013, ran over Joseph A. Kelley, who was thrown from his vehicle during a traffic accident. The deputy, who was on his way to work in Pine County, was driving a county vehicle and was northbound, on I-35, in Chisago County when he ran over Kelley who was lying on the roadway.
District court determined the deputy was “…not entitled to immunity because he was not performing his official duties when he was driving to work and did not assume his official duties before the collision that gave rise to this lawsuit…”
Minnesota Court of Appeals’ decision, in May 2018:
The deputy “… is not entitled to official immunity because he was not performing his official duties when he engaged in the conduct that Raymond alleges was negligent. Pine County is not entitled to vicarious official immunity. Therefore, the district court did not err by denying appellants' motion for summary judgment.”
Meeting closed to evaluate Administrator Minke
The board held a second closed meeting to evaluate the performance of Pine County Administrator David Minke. Commissioner Matt Ludwig made a motion to set Minke’s salary at $123,074 effective on his anniversary date of July 2, 2018. The board unanimously approved the motion 5-0.


Schroeder appointed to Pine Co. Auditor-Treasurer post

by Ailene Croup for PiCK News
Pine County Board moved forward with their plan to appoint someone to fill the position of auditor/treasurer at the Oct. 16, 2018 regular meeting.
Five candidates were interviewed the previous week including Kelly Schroeder, who currently holds the title of Assessor-Recorder Land Manager.
At their request, Pine County Commissioners had the State Legislature draw up a special bill to make the last of the main floor elected officials, appointed positions. Commissioner Matt Ludwig testified at the state legislative committee meeting in favor of making it an appointed position. Rep. Jason Rarick authored the bill. The recorder, assessor, treasurer and auditor are no longer offices elected by Pine County voters. They are appointed.
The personnel committee has gone about restructuring the hierarchy of the courthouse.
Besides the commissioners, only two remaining officials will be chosen by voters - county attorney and sheriff.  
They formally approved hiring Schroeder with a resolution to accept the personnel committee’s recommendation which included shifting Schroder’s responsibilities to other department heads. The motion was made by Commissioner Steve Chaffee, seconded by Commissioner Matt Ludwig and unanimously approved.
PiCK News spoke with Schroeder after the meeting to get her perspective on the scope of her duties and plans for the office.
Schroeder said she has an educational background in accounting and feels she’s more than ready for the job. Prior to her six years as assessor in Pine County, she worked in the Isanti County Auditor’s office.
Her challenges will be the day-to-day questions and answers focused on her work as the assessor/recorder land management director. Learning to pass those questions on to the appropriate department when she could just as easily handle them, will take some getting used to. She sees a different phone number in her future.
Elections are a big part of the auditor’s job. She anticipates communication with township clerks and supervisors through email or calls. Most of the townships know Schroeder because of her visits to their Boards of Equalization each spring.
The current mid-term elections have been an example for her. There are so many early voter ballots this year, she is planning on adding temporary help during the election cycle to keep voters from experiencing long lines for early voting. It is also complicated by tax day and residents coming in to pay their taxes in October, causing long lines at the auditor’s window.
“I focus on the customer,” Schroeder said.
She said other counties hire help during the election and the absentee-early voting numbers have to be addressed for the 2020 elections.
“I’m excited to dig into the county’s finances,” she said, adding that she wants to get more in-depth with the county’s investments and focus on a better return on the dollar.
The biggest challenge for transitioning into the new office will be “letting go” of the old office.

Pine County Commissioners questioned about their support for elk study

by Ailene Croup for PiCK News
The city of Sandstone was the site of last week’s special committee of the whole, county board meeting.
Invitations were sent to clerks, chairmen, mayor and city administrator for three of the highest populated jurisdictions in Commissioner Matt Ludwig’s District. Sandstone, Sandstone Township and Finlayson Township were invited. These municipalities were sent a notice to post inviting residents. Finlayson Township was not represented at the meeting. One resident, Skip Thomson, who is a candidate for District 5 Commissioner running against Ludwig, was also in attendance. Thomson is the chairman of the county’s newly formed zoning board and also chairman of Pine County Soil and Water.
Public comment
At the beginning of the meeting, public comment was taken. Sandstone Township Supervisor Carlson asked about the board’s stand on introducing elk into Pine County. He said he knew of someone who had received a survey about the introduction of elk into the county.
In February 2015, the Fond du Lac Band’s Wildlife Biologist, Mike Schrage, requested verbal support from Pine County Commissioners to conduct a feasibility study about bringing elk back into parts of Pine County.
The board approved support for the project on a motion by Commissioner Ludwig. It was approved on a 4-1 vote with Ludwig, Hallan, Mohr and Chaffee voting yes. Commissioner Curt Rossow from District 4 was the only no vote.
Nemadji State Park was the area discussed as the place to reintroduce elk along with State Parks in Carlton and St. Louis County. Recent maps also show St. Croix State Park as an area of interest for the elk.
Pine County Board also touched on the subject, July 3, 2018, at the first board meeting of the month.
At that meeting, Ludwig said he’d had questions from residents about the elk. He said he remembered the board was concerned about the elk interfering with farm operations in the county.
Hallan also said, at that meeting, he remembered the research would be good for Nemadji and that Fond du Lac was the preferred place to bring in the elk.
Hallan answered Carlson’s question saying, “We supported a study. In my mind, a study is a study.”
Administrator David Minke said 8,500 surveys were sent out and they expect results in the summer or fall.
PiCK News learned the Introduction of elk into other parts of Minnesota have been a costly venture for farmers and taxpayers.
Rocky Mountain Elk were brought into the state in the northwest Minnesota County of Kittson. Just to the south of Kittson is Marshall County where the town of Grygla is located. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) manages the herd near Grygla.
The herd grew, grazed in the farmers’ fields and damaged their crops.
In 1985, farmers lobbied to remove the elk. The DNR used helicopters and tranquilizing guns to subdue the animals and round them up. One tranquilized bull drowned. The Sierra Club brought a lawsuit against the DNR to stop the roundup.
The state legislature, in 1987, voted to pay farmers for their crop damage and contain the herd to 20-30 animals, which would include a hunting season to keep the numbers down. Farmers have been compensated more than $55,000 for their loss of crops due to damage by elk in the years since the legislation. It took many years to establish a hunting season.
Schrage said in his 2015 presentation to Pine County Board, if Fond du Lac’s project is feasible and a herd is established in the three counties, the natives could hunt but the elk would be protected from other hunters.
PiCK News talked to Representative Jason Rarick last week. He said the state continues to pay farmers in northwestern Minnesota for their losses due to crop damage by the elk.
Chairman Hallan signed a letter of support on April 14, 2015, which talked about the board being “excited by this proposal.” It was sent to LCCMR. LCCMR is the Legislative-Citizen’s Commission on Minnesota Resources. Its function is to make funding recommendations to the Minnesota Legislature for special environment and natural resource projects.
The 2015 letter states:
Re: LCCMR Proposal “Restoration of Elk to Eastern Minnesota: A Feasibility Study”
Dear LCCMR Members:
On February 17, 2015, the Pine County Board of Commissioners approved a letter of support for the proposal by the University of Minnesota and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to conduct a feasibility study for the restoration of elk to eastern Minnesota, including areas of Pine County.
Elk were once common across most of the state. Today, however, the elk numbers and range are only a fraction of their historic level. We are excited by this proposal to investigate the feasibility of returning elk to eastern Minnesota and believe the University and the Band have a sound proposal to study the issue. Returning wild elk to eastern Minnesota would mean restoring part of our traditional wildlife heritage and could provide significant ecological and economic benefits.
The county board believes that public attitudes towards elk and suitable habitat need to be considered and positive results for both aspects are needed before further steps towards elk restoration should be taken. We strongly support this application, and urge LCCMR to recommend full funding for it.
Stephen M. Hallan, Chair
Pine County Board of Commissioners.

In 4-1 decision, Pine County Commissioners take Obey's land by eminent domain

by Ailene Croup for PiCK News
Pine County Board of Commissioners voted in favor of taking a portion of James and Wilda Obey’s land, located in Munch Township, by eminent domain.
There was some board discussion and comments from the affected parties before the board made a motion to approve the eminent domain resolution at the May 15, 2018 board meeting.
Chairman Steve Hallan said the county needed to get the forester into the Memorial Forest to get the timber evaluated.
In February, a 90-day time limit was given to negotiate easement across the Obey property. That time ended May 8, 2018.
An offer was sent to County Attorney Reese Fredrickson on May 11, on behalf of the Obeys.
James Taurinskas, the Obey’s attorney whose family also has property near the Obeys, said the offer sent to Fredrickson was made because the county attorney said they had to have access to the timber in the forest.
The forest is adjacent to the Obeys land and is the reason the county wants access across the Obeys land. In 2006, the Obeys had their property put in a land trust which restricts the ways their land can be used. The restrictions include no commercial use or road construction.
In 2010, the county had the approximately 1,100 acres of tax-forfeited land next to the Obeys land declared Memorial Forest along with 33,0000 additional acres in the county. Before a piece of land is declared Memorial Forest it must first be determined whether there is viable access to the land.
Much of the Memorial Forest in question is wet, lowland. Those with land adjacent, must access their land over a corduroy road. They have been granted access across the Obey’s gated land to the corduroy road beyond it. Several were present at the meeting. They had voiced their concerns at the previous board meeting when Fredrickson said one of the county’s options besides eminent domain was making the Memorial Forest walk-in only.
“We can grant an access in different ways. Everybody isn’t going to win.” Hallan said.
Commissioner Matt Ludwig, who is on the zoning board, said the idea is “not to tread on people’s rights” and added that the public should be able to access the forest across the Obey’s land.
Hallan said he was certain he could solve the problem of access across their land if he could have a one-on-one conversation with the Obeys.
County Forester Greg Beck said he had been fairly silent until now.  He said the road was an old town road. No documentation has been found showing the land the county wants to condemn has been recorded as a road. Beck indicated township record keeping was not flawless. He said the road is shown on maps. He also said the road was there when the Obeys purchased the land.
A road that has not been recorded can legally be gated, he added. Pine County just wants to reopen the road.
“We’re not trying to take something away, we’re just trying to get something back,” Beck said.
Steve Quam, attorney for the Minnesota Land Trust which regulates the Obey’s trust land, said they weren’t trying to leave Fredrickson out of the negotiations with the Obeys and Taurinskas. They had to find something that would work for those parties before the offer was made to the county.
Quam said the trust allows for forestry management across the land trust easement. It calls for the Obeys to submit a plan and walk-ins are allowed also.
Peter Taurinskas said the gate was erected because of the instances of criminal activity on the land. James Obey had a hunter point a gun at him and a meth lab was located just beyond the Obeys land in the Memorial Forest. Remnants of that structure still exists. Another of his neighbors around the forest had $30,000 worth of equipment stolen from a shed on his land.
“Have respect for private property owners’ rights.If you don’t, to me, it’s just a sad day in Pine County for private land owners,” Peter Taurinskas said.
Commissioner Steve Chaffee asked if there was any window of access to the land which would be acceptable to Beck to do his job.
Pine County Forester Greg Beck said 12-month access would be acceptable. Besides access to timber management in the winter, they would need to plant conifers May through September, and mid-summer they would need to work on improving the road.
James Taurinskas asked whether there would be negotiations that included topics such as walk-in accessibility and wetland permits.
Pine County Administrator David Minke said they weren’t negotiating at the current meeting. He said, the board requested a 90-day window for negotiation before the vote on the eminent domain resolution.
Attorney and landowner adjacent to the forest,Brian Taurinskas, said the statute requires good faith negotiations before proceeding with eminent domain. He asked that negotiations continue before eminent domain is considered.
According to Fredrickson, with any court proceedings there is always the potential for negotiations.
Commissioner Steve Chaffee, whose district includes the township of Munch, made a motion to proceed with the eminent domain resolution. “That still leaves the door open,” he added.
Ailene Croup, reporting for PiCK News asked it there had been any other requests from people wanting to access the Memorial Forest across the Obeys’ land, other than board members. It was also asked what the cost would be to build or improve the corduroy road, to allow timber trucks to access the land.
Hallan said there had been requests over the past several years to access the Memorial Forest. Chaffee said loggers have used that road before this and Minke said timber cutting companies would be responsible for improving the road.
Hallan said the price of improving the road would most likely be figured into the price for the timber.
One resident of Mallard Road, which goes directly to the Obey’s access, asked if the loggers would be repairing Mallard Road when they tear it up. There was no answer to that question.
Commissioner Ludwig seconded the motion. The vote was 4-1 with Commissioners Ludwig, Chaffee, Josh Mohr and John Mikrot, voting yes and Hallan voting no.
PiCK News asked Hallan after the meeting why he voted “no.” He said because he believed in the hope of negotiation.

DNA testing may take mystery out of missing persons search

by Ailene Croup for PiCK News
Fifty years ago my Dad went to work and never came home. I wanted answers. The search for those answers began with me filing a missing persons report in January 2015.
Pine County Sheriff’s Deputy Barry Sjodahl swabbed my cheek for DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). My brother also provided DNA. It is now in the national missing person’s database.
My Dad was, by trade, a house painter and had his own business in the Twin Cities before moving north to Pine County in 1961. He would take on extra jobs in the metro area to support my mother and the seven of us children. Everyone worked.
We had paper routes, we were waitresses, we washed dishes, mowed lawns - we all had jobs. It was that work ethic which was the fabric of families back then.
I was living in Duluth with my sister, Carol in the summer of 1967. She and I had bought bus tickets to visit Mom and Dad for Father’s Day, June 19, 1967. It was a fun visit with cake and gifts for Dad. I remember the blue cotton fishing hat we bought him.
The day ended too soon. Dad drove us out to Tobies and we boarded the bus for the return trip to Duluth.
Later, I would look back on that moment, wishing that last kiss, last hug, last goodbye would have been longer, would have said much more about what was in my heart instead of being just in the moment.
The next morning, the hat and other Father’s Day momentos were tucked into a box along with some salami, homemade bread and pickles. Dad would be staying with grandpa in the Cities, as he occasionally did when he was hired to do some painting. This one was an inside painting job - a two-story apartment building.
Dad told mom he expected to be finished on Wednesday and would be home late that day. If he ran into problems, he would call and be home the next day.
I had been contemplating moving back to Hinckley and the idea was reinforced by my trip home.
A friend from Hinckley, who was attending college in Duluth, called that Monday. He apologized for not having been in contact with me sooner. We exchanged news of the past year and he said he was moving back home for the summer. I asked if he had room in his car for my stuff. There wasn’t much. We found a way to squeeze it all in and headed to Hinckley that day.
Mom was pleased. There was always room for one more. Moving home meant pulling my weight. I immediately got a job at local restaurant working evenings.
My youngest brother was only four months old and Mom had just gone back to work. She needed someone to watch him during the day. She worked mornings at the same restaurant. The plan was for me to take care of my brother while she worked.
I made it home from my shift that Wednesday about 11:30 p.m. Dad hadn’t made it home yet. Mom said he had not called so he’d probably be pretty late. We all went to bed.
He didn’t come home the next day and he didn’t call. Mom planned to call grandpa if Dad wasn’t home Friday morning,
Bright and early Friday morning, she called before going to work. Grandpa said he had not seen Dad at all. Mom called several friends in the metro area. They had not seen him.
She was upset. The next call was to the Pine County Sheriff’s Office. They said “technically” he hadn’t been missing 48 hours because he said he would be home Thursday. She was instructed to call the sheriff’s department on Monday if he didn’t show up over the weekend.
This was not like Dad. There was no consoling Mom. I don’t know how she did it but she went to work that morning.
The weekend was unbearably long. Mom cried a lot. We called everyone who could possible know Dad’s whereabouts, to no avail. Lifelong friends of Mom and Dad came to stay with us and offer Mom support. Mom didn’t sleep.
Monday morning finally came and we were hungry for any news or help we could get from the sheriff.
Mom repeated the story about Dad not making it home. The response was cold. They considered Dad’s disappearance “a domestic” and said they would not get involved.
Mom slept with the light on for months. She didn’t sleep much. We went about our business at a mechanical pace, a day at a time. Slowly the tears turned to resolve. Mom worked 10 hours a day, six days a week for $1.10 an hour. She said she was determined to keep us all together. And, she did.
Pine County Sheriff Robin Cole, and Sheriff Jeff Nelson after him, proved law enforcement has changed over the last 50 years by taking information about my Dad’s disappearance along with my DNA.
There is now a ray of hope to solve old and new missing persons’ cases.
Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) is hoping to match the DNA of 100 unidentified remains by providing opportunities for people to voluntarily provide DNA to locate missing family members.
BCA Public Information Officer Jill Oliveira, with the Department of Public Safety, told PiCK News that there are a series of collection opportunities scheduled over a two-week period. The first was held Saturday in St. Paul. Nine people came to the location to provide information about family members and offer their DNA. The second was held Tuesday, in Duluth and Wednesday it was held in Bemidji.
For those families who were unable to attend any of the first three, there will be one more opportunity to provide DNA and information at the Blue Earth County Justice Center, 401 Carver Road, Mankato, Minn.,, on Thursday, July 27, 2017, from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. This is an updated location.
Hope is there.
Oliveira offered one example of a 30-year-old missing person’s case.
Family members of 19-year-old Cassandra Rhines, who was last seen in Minneapolis in June of 1985, came forward to offer DNA in hopes of solving Rhines disappearance. No matches were found in the missing persons’ database.
In 2016, a few months later, her remains were found at Gooseberry Falls and they were able to identify her from those samples and give the family closure.
Oliveira recommended to those who have old or new missing family members come to the Mankato collection to speak with BCA agents to explain the conditions of the disappearance and volunteer their DNA. The Jacob Wetterling Resource Center will have staff on hand to provide family support, Oliveira said.
No one has ever come forward with any information about my Dad. His Social Security Number has not been used since he went to work the day after Father’s Day, in 1967. My hope is that through providing my DNA, my Dad’s disappearance will be solved.

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