In a quiet and nearly empty Crow Wing County Historic Courthouse, commissioners seated far from one another voted unanimously Tuesday, March 24, to extend a local emergency declaration issued by Chairman Paul Koering over the weekend.

The scene was a stark contrast from the meeting two weeks earlier, when more than 200 people packed the third-floor boardroom and spilled into the vestibule to voice opinions on a proposed Second Amendment sanctuary resolution. A day later, the World Health Organization declared the respiratory disease COVID-19 a global pandemic, followed shortly by emergency declarations from Gov. Tim Walz and President Donald Trump along with a cascade of cancellations, closures and dramatic changes to everyday life.

A declaration of a local emergency invokes parts of the county’s emergency response and recovery plan, allowing the county to act quickly and without compliance to typical regulations in a number of areas. This includes public work performance, entering contracts, employing temporary workers, renting equipment, purchasing supplies and appropriating and expending public funds. County Administrator Tim Houle said this means county officials can choose to prioritize purchasing from local companies in lieu of the typical bidding process.

“We will be trying to purchase locally as much as we can,” Houle said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We think that the citizens’ money that they have contributed to us needs to recirculate within our own community as much as possible, so that we can keep as many people working as possible. And so that's particularly important for us right now.”

He encouraged county residents to spend their own money locally as well amid a significant forced shuttering of numerous businesses in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“Stay home as much as you can and still support local businesses. Buy local. It is more important now than ever,” Houle said. “So order takeout and drive-thru, not because you don’t want to cook tonight, but because you want to keep people employed within our local community. And so do it because it’s the right thing to do for our community.”

During their regular meeting Tuesday, March 24, Crow Wing County commissioners sat in every other chair to maintain social distance, a directive of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the midst of the new coronavirus pandemic. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch
During their regular meeting Tuesday, March 24, Crow Wing County commissioners sat in every other chair to maintain social distance, a directive of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the midst of the new coronavirus pandemic. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Washing hands, social distancing and staying home if ill are all things Crow Wing County residents and visitors should be doing, Houle said. He noted leaders of area big box stores have noticed shoppers from as far away as the Twin Cities or farther traveling to the lakes area in hopes of finding items gone from shelves elsewhere. He said this is coupled with the return of seasonal residents and those with second homes in the area, increasing movement to and from north-central Minnesota.

“This is not great for virus containment, but there is really no prohibition on travel within the state of Minnesota. And so there’s not much that we can do at this point in time to stop that,” Houle said. “We are also beginning to see the return migration of snowbirds and some folks with second homes here coming to shelter in our community. I guess that’s not particularly surprising.

“ … We need to simply practice good social distancing. And so, we would like to send that message out not just to our residents, but also to our seasonal folks. … We still have the advantage of a rural area, and we have a lot of elbow room.”

County workforce

Houle said 75% of the county’s workforce is now working from home, which makes maintaining at least 6 feet of distance from others more feasible in the county facilities themselves. While the buildings are closed to the public, Houle said county government remains open and employees are continuing to deliver services to residents.

There are some employees for whom social distancing is more difficult, however. These include sheriff’s deputies, correctional officers, probation officers and some social workers, such as those engaged in child protection work. This is driving the need for personal protection equipment, Houle said, and is part of the reason county officials announced Monday a request for residents to donate any surplus masks, gloves, sanitizer and other related items.

“That personal contact without social distancing is an especially important focus for us,” he said. “And so we’d like to be able to provide them with as much personal protective equipment as we can, so that they can continue to do their jobs and stay safe at the same time.”

Houle said personal protective equipment will also be stockpiled and distributed to emergency responders and health care workers as needed. Residents may help by leaving items in a dropbox outside the community services building, 204 Laurel St. Items needed include new surgical masks, new N95 masks, new industrial dust masks, new latex-free gloves, new disposable food-grade gloves, new disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer of all sizes, antibacterial soap, water-resistant protective gowns, new eye protection goggles or glasses and new face shields.

Although no one was in the audience at Tuesday’s meeting, Koering assured the public he and other commissioners are still accessible.

“Obviously in these unprecedented times we can’t have anyone come into the courthouse,” Koering said. “They can continue to email their county commissioner, they can call their county commissioner. … I have been hearing from people that are wondering about property taxes, wondering about what’s going on with the coronavirus and a whole host of other issues. So continue to do that, reach out to your elected official.”

Maintaining transparency

The emergency declaration provides authority for the county board to limit the size of public gatherings at county board meetings to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in such circumstances. This same limitation is also being extended to the county’s planning commission/board of adjustment, as well as the Crow Wing County Housing and Redevelopment Authority. It also allows for meetings of these two bodies to happen via video-conferencing or telephone conferencing should that become necessary.

The declaration also includes a requirement to livestream county board and planning commission/board of adjustment meetings on the county’s website. The county already routinely stores videos of every county board and planning commission meeting on its website. Visit https://bit.ly/3a8MQcP to view the livestream or past meeting recordings. Full access to county board meetings for media outlets within Crow Wing County will also continue to be allowed at their discretion. Members of the public wishing to comment can write in to coadmin@crowwing.us.

In other business, the county board:

Recognized retiring employee David Danielson, whose focus was the household hazardous waste program at the Crow Wing County Landfill. Since 2008, Danielson helped 18,540 customers and managed 670 tons of material for proper disposal. He also helped to recover 140 tons of items still in good enough condition to be given away and reused by local residents, which saved the county $97,000 by not shipping those items as hazardous waste.

Approved an application to Sourcewell on behalf of Region Five veterans service officers for an Innovation Funding grant. If the project is selected, the grant would support a Veteran Community Supported Agriculture program. The goal of the proposed program is to deliver healthy food and teach recipients how to prepare it as part of an overall effort to improve the quality of life for veterans and their families. Region Five is seeking $66,350 to fund the program, with no match required.

Authorized entering a contract with Anderson Brothers Construction Co. for work on county highways 36 and 37 in Crosslake. The contract amount was $1,474,014.94 for full-depth reclamation, grading and bituminous surfacing on the roads. The bid exceeded the engineer’s estimate by $72,916.91. The project is expected to begin in May or June and conclude by the end of September. The board also entered a separate contract with Anderson Brothers for aggregate shouldering on county highways 10 and 27 and county roads 102, 121 and 159 for $92,172.50. That amount is $24,025 less than the engineer’s estimate.

Authorized entering a contract with Traffic Marking Services for pavement markings on county highways 17, 18, 19 and 22 and county roads 111, 112, 118 and 168. The company was the lowest bidder of four. The contract totals $112.083.50, which amounts to $8,440.50 less than the engineer’s estimate. The board also entered a contract with the same company for pavement markings on a number of other county, First Assessment District, Oak Lawn Township and Baxter roads for a total of $249,271.74. That contract exceeded the engineer’s estimate by $11,076.54.

Authorized entering a contract with Astech for bituminous seal coating on multiple county highways along with roads in the First Assessment District, Jenkins Township, Ross Lake Township and Deerwood Township, and the cities of Breezy Point, Crosby, Lakeshore, Fifty Lakes, Crosslake. The contract amounted to $1,263,564.73, which was $247,333.57 below the engineer’s estimate.

Accepted performance review summaries for County Administrator Tim Houle and County Veterans Service Officer Erik Flowers. The board gave Houle a “Performing” rating and Flowers earned an “Out-Performing” rating.

Houle was recognized for his leadership in strategic initiatives, fostering community relationships, coordination and communication between the board and county senior managers and financial management, according to a summary of the review.

Flowers received recognition for his grant management and coordination, his outreach efforts, staff development, strong leadership and his highly commendable work as an advocate for Crow Wing County veterans, the review summary stated.

Reinstated a contract for deed arrangement with the occupant of a tax-forfeited property in Center Township. In January, the board authorized Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan to pursue an unlawful detainer action. This amounts to an eviction from the property now owned by the county. But last week, the occupant paid the full amount necessary to reinstate the contract for deed.

Authorized entering a grant agreement with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for funding to support supplemental boating safety patrol May through September. The grant totals $19,500.

Accepted a $4,000 donation from Region Five Development Commission to Crow Wing County Veterans Services.

Approved a lawful gambling application for Northern Lakes Youth Hockey Association for an event scheduled June 6 at The Woods Banquet and Event Center.

Approved the hiring of the following people: Brent Zinda, assessor-in-training, land services; Edward Zimny, assessor-in-training; and Megan Adams, public health nurse, community services.

Accepted the departures of the following employees: Heidi Fagerman, legal assistance, county attorney’s office; Marika Olivier, collections claim and fraud specialist, community services; and Lydia Marohn, administrative manager, county attorney’s office. Replacement staffing was approved for each of those positions.

Approved hiring for the following seasonal/temporary positions: GIS intern, information technology; technical support intern, information technology; two seasonal engineering assistants, highway department; high school engineering intern, highway department; seasonal grounds worker, facilities; seasonal environmental technician, land services; and four seasonal recreation assistant interns, sheriff’s office.

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CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.