Commissioners debate building security, public access options

By : 
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy Spring Valley Tribune
Spring Valley Tribune

Housekeeping was the order of the day during the Tuesday, March 12, Fillmore County commissioners meeting, with the focus being on courthouse construction and security.

County Coordinator Bobbie Vickerman and building maintenance supervisor Terry Schultz introduced information related to the law enforcement building’s pneumatic controls. Schultz outlined the costs for the air handlers at the jail, citing that the replacement is necessary.

Next, Vickerman said there were no immediate updates available on taxpayer services — zoning and feedlot among them — being moved upstairs from their current downstairs courthouse locations.

“Some moves are starting to take place. Terry is working with department heads, and painting has been completed as to what can be done so far,” she said.

Courthouse construction and security spurred debate that took quite some time as Schultz delineated options for the design of the main level of the courthouse to be taken to contractors for bids.

Three options were laid out for the board’s attention, all meant to make the courthouse more handicapped accessible and add security infrastructure to provide a safer working environment for county employees and courthouse visitors.

Sheriff John DeGeorge commented on the board’s concerns whether a glass wall should be replaced with a solid wall to keep money out of public view, as some of the commissioners balanced sight lines against keeping particular confidential things out of sight.

“It’s important to remember that we can play the game of…‘This is secure, but it could be more secure’,” DeGeorge said.

Vickerman suggested the security cameras that were installed in the courthouse last year be positioned to record the transactions in the auditor’s and recorder’s offices, because the conversation centered on unaccompanied members of the public visiting the courthouse and taking home more than which they are entitled.

Commissioners Randy Dahl and Mitch Lentz disagreed further on whether new walls are necessary, and County Attorney Brett Corson weighed in on the matter, sharing that there are differences in data classifications that the board must consider when deciding where to put walls.

Lentz remarked that the interpretation of the word and concept of “accessibility” are subjective, but Corson informed the board that certain departments are required by statute to be open to the public. Lentz said, “We spend a lot of money securing this building, and I think this is an overreaction.”

Recorder Dave Kiehne asked, “How do we secure all this stuff that the public can’t be looking at?”

DeGeorge reminded the board and county employees that they don’t have to handle disputes entirely on their own because they can call on courthouse security officers to intervene in the rare moment that it is necessary. “We have a licensed deputy police officer equipped and ready to do his job,” he added.

Ultimately, Lentz stated he felt “doing what is best for the public,” or maintaining an open office, is the route he would take, and the board voted to allow Schultz to proceed with getting estimates.

New doors in the recorder’s and auditor-treasurer’s offices came up next, especially in relation to public access areas, and Kiehne commented that secure doors in his office aren’t as vital as they are in the auditor-treasurer’s office.

Lentz made a motion not to install any new doors in the auditor-treasurer’s office. Commissioner Marc Prestby seconded, and while Lentz’s motion not to install doors did not go to a vote, auditor-treasurer Heidi Jones registered that there is a lot of confidential information that must be secured as staff goes about their day in her department.

Dahl said he felt the definition of an office being “open” means that a staff member assists someone with entry to public access areas of the courthouse’s offices.

“‘Public access’ does not mean that you’re allowed to wander. You’re escorted to what you want to see. We’re not talking about everyone in the group, just the one nut who does what they shouldn’t,” he added.

Bakke offered that the subject should be tabled until more information is available to all involved parties, but the board concurred that getting bids for the construction at this time makes the most sense, having carried out that vote.

At the meeting’s close, Bakke observed that the county has expended effort to cross-train its employees and foster more communication between departments, but the efforts to secure the building are unintentionally thwarting that initiative.

Departmental reports

 Corson, Jones and Land Records Director Brian Hoff came before the commissioners with updates to the county’s tax abatement policy as related to property taxes, addressing what happens if a property experiences a disaster that devalues it, when a taxpayer’s payment is considered late — including whether the county will accept it according to the postmark on it. The disaster abatement would make way for residents to proceed with having their property taxes reassessed, and the postmark matter would allow for citizens to mail their tax payment late once in a lifetime and have the postmark honored. Corson will carry out further review of the policy.

Zoning Administrator Cristal Adkins had a longer list of things for the board’s consideration, beginning with an access permit for Jeff Brogle for a new field drive on County Road 105 in Arendahl Township, and a resolution for a conditional use permit (CUP) for MiEnergy Cooperative telecommunications towers in Arendahl, Fountain and Spring Valley townships. After the board approved the field drive permit, Adkins explained that the towers have variances for setbacks. The Arendahl tower would be at the Peterson substation. Lentz pointed out there are no lights on the towers, and he also stated he brought it up because he has a personal interest in not having lights on the tower that will be on his property. He added the residents with whom he had spoken had also expressed concern that there would be flashing lights atop the towers, but the towers will not be tall enough to require lights. Lentz asked if he should abstain due to the Spring Valley tower being on his land, and Bakke countered that there should be no conflict of interest because there was no monetary issue involved. The CUPs for MiEnergy were approved, with the addition of a stipulation that the towers should not have lights installed.

Social Services Manager Kevin Olson presented a proclamation recognizing March as Social Workers Month, which was accepted. Olson went on to request the results of the claims training provided by consultant Mary Klinhagan for reviewing the department’s accounts. Olson related that in reviewing accounts, Klinhagan found approximately $30,000 in unclaimed benefits that could be returned to the county’s active accounts. He remarked that the consultant also showed the social services department’s workers how to prove the benefits had not been claimed. The board was pleased to hear that the funding in the social services department had been recounted. Lentz observed that often, the county employees are busy doing their jobs diligently and are unaware of the means to recoup such funding. He expressed his appreciation to Olson for taking the time to revisit expenses.

Anne Detlefsen, of the women’s shelter, was on the original agenda to be allowed to hold an “empty shoes” memorial in the lower level of the courthouse March 25 through March 29. The memorial illustrates the reality of domestic violence.

Kristina Kohn, of human resources, requested permission to hire an intermittent deputy for the sheriff’s department effective April 1, Karen Apenhorst as a replacement accounting technician in the auditor-treasurer’s office effective April 1, Debra Dunn as another replacement accounting technician no later than April 1, and Angela Serfling as a full-time public health nurse.

Highway Engineer Ron Gregg asked for the board’s approval to advertise for the concrete overlay project on County State Aid Highway (CSAH) 1 from CSAH 39 to the Mower County line, as well as awarding of the 2019 fuel contract. Gregg pointed out that the overlay project will have approximately $2 million in federal funding. The 2019 fuel bids were awarded to Hovey Oil Company.

The consent agenda included approving payment of the $109,821.50 second quarter invoice to Olmsted County Community Services for the 2019 Dodge-Fillmore-Olmsted (DFO) Community Corrections appropriation, and granting a merit increase for case aide Ashley Rinn effective March 30.

Administrative items included discussing who would do the county’s audit for the coming year, with the board choosing the low quote from Clifton, Larson, Allen as the auditor over Baker-Tilly.