Parks in jeopardy
WORTHINGTON -- Nobles County commissioners met for an all-day strategic planning session Tuesday, discussing all areas of county government to identify cost savings, collaboration and continued services.
The annual event gives commissioners a chance to look at the existing needs and plan for future expenditures and, at a time when fewer dollars are available, consider reducing some of the county's costs.
One area in which cost savings may be realized is the county's park system. The county owns and maintains seven parks -- Maka Oicu and Fury's Island, both in Graham Lakes Township; Hawkeye in Indian Lake; Pickeral and Sportsman parks in Bigelow Township; Sunrise Prairie in Little Rock Township and Midway in Larkin Township.
Of the parks, which range from four acres to 46 acres, Midway Park in Section 20, Larkin Township, has been identified by commissioners as property they would prefer to no longer own.
Nobles County Administrator Mel Ruppert said the county's parks have been a topic of discussion for the past five years.
"Should some of this property, if it's not being used, be turned back to the tax rolls?" he asked the board.
Commissioner Vern Leistico said Midway Park isn't used at all, while Commissioner Diane Thier said it's used for beer parties.
"I think we could give that land to Pheasants Forever and they could sell it to the DNR and we could get taxes on it," suggested Commissioner Bob Demuth Jr.
The county park has no amenities such as picnic tables, shelters or a restroom, and Ruppert said there is some liability with the property because of its former use as a gravel pit. The water in the pit is quite deep, and there was an ATV accident on the site a couple of years ago, despite signage that those types of vehicles are not allowed on the property.
Ruppert said before commissioners make any decision, they will need to have a discussion with the county's park board. If the decision would be to sell the parcel, bids could be requested for the 45-acre Midway Park.
Sunrise Prairie County Park was also discussed briefly. The 22-acre site includes four acres of native prairie and nearly 18 acres of pasture. There is a cemetery at the park, which the county is responsible to maintain.
"Park systems have changed over the years and I think we have to look for new opportunities and envision together," Ruppert said.
He suggested they may also want to look at contracting with someone to care for the Maka Oicu and Fury's Island park systems.
"We can't afford to operate it, but maybe there's someone in the private (sector) who would be willing to manage it," Ruppert said.
Parks Superintendent Jerry Braun was given a lot of credit for managing the parks, but as the county discussed on Tuesday, he will likely be retiring in the next few years.
"It's important to have the discussion now -- to have the plans in place," Ruppert said.
In recent years, the county board has received occasional requests from townships to provide rural signage for private properties. Unlike city residents, rural residents do not have house numbers identifying their address. With an altering rural landscape -- a confinement barn or a wind turbine making up a rural address -- some fire departments want signs to mark each property.
"I have received mixed messages," said Commissioner David Benson. "One of my townships is very much in favor of going to rural signage, but there are three or four other townships that say with GPS, why would we do it?"
Street signs were erected in rural Nobles County in 2000, and Ruppert said the reflectorized sheeting has a life span of about 12 years. That means they will be looking at replacing all of the signs in the next couple of years. If the county opts to purchase signs for individual properties, he said that would be the time to do the work.
One option he suggested was to replace the existing street signs with new signs that also include, in smaller letters, the span of house numbers within that mile.
"In a winter like we had, I think no matter where you put the sign, they're not going to be seen with the banks we've had," Ruppert said. "I think it might be a better investment to look at the GPS system rather than putting signs in."
Several of the commissioners had planned to meet with township officials during their meetings Tuesday night. They were encouraged to discuss the issue further at that time, and collect recommendations to bring back to the board.
Nobles County Library
Ruppert reported that commissioners have looked at eight or nine different sites in Worthington for a potential new county library. Talks have been ongoing with both the city and the school district as well.
In early May, commissioners will tour several newer libraries in the Twin Cities to gather information on services, design and operations. They will be accompanied by Steve Johnson of Vetter-Johnson, as well as representatives from the City of Worthington. In the same trip, the group will meet with bond consultants to determine financing for the facility.
"The goal is to continue to move forward in looking for a site, and maybe have that identified yet in 2011," said Ruppert.
"I'm not getting a lot of support for the college site -- it's too far out, it's too congested," said Commissioner Marv Zylstra. "Nor am I getting support for the (former) swimming pool site."
Regardless of the site that's selected, commissioners agreed they want an area that's highly visible and meets the needs of the communities.
"There's no doubt the future of libraries is changing," Ruppert said, adding that perhaps the new facility will be a place where people could buy a cup of coffee and a cookie, include some group settings and meet the technology needs of the public.
Extension, county fair
In 2011, Nobles County will pay $109,000 for Extension programming and approximately $25,000 to the Nobles County Fair Association. Extension delivers 4-H and after-school programs locally.
Leistico asked why the county continues to support Extension, noting it doesn't offer monies to other programs for youths such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.
Zylstra said the partnership between the county and Extension dates back to the early 1900s, when the University of Minnesota, a land grant university, created a program to deliver information to the counties. Nobles County, which used to have an agriculture agent, home economist and 4-H youth director, has just a 4-H program coordinator in its office today.
Leistico said the county could do a lot with the $109,000 it spends on Extension.
"If you don't spend it on youth and that aspect, it might come back to haunt you," Zylstra said.
"I like 4-H, but I don't understand why we have the whole Extension thing," added Thier. "That's a lot of money."
Benson said the "critical point" of the U of M Extension program is that it provides unbiased information -- something farmers don't get from seed companies trying to sell them product.
Commissioners also discussed the fairgrounds briefly.
"The fair is a whole different thing," said Zylstra. "The survival of fairs is getting to be critical."
He said that when Extension began the process of regionalization, the idea of creating regional fairs was also discussed.
"Nobody wants to give up their fair," he added.
Demuth said the fair board has been good stewards with the money it is given, and praised the association for the new restroom facilities on the grounds.