Broadband, budgets and back taxes: Commissioners discuss several items during work session
WORTHINGTON -- From broadband to budgets and back taxes owed on Worthington's Northland Mall, Nobles County commissioners discussed a multitude of projects Monday morning during a special work session. The mall, which has generally been a discuss...
WORTHINGTON - From broadband to budgets and back taxes owed on Worthington’s Northland Mall, Nobles County commissioners discussed a multitude of projects Monday morning during a special work session.
The mall, which has generally been a discussion topic of the Worthington City Council, is now making its way before the county because of health issues posed inside the Oxford Street building, as well as a failure to collect property taxes in 2012, 2013 and thus far in 2014.
Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson said the county’s public health administrator, Terri Janssen, has been asked to declare the Northland Mall a public health hazard.
“The building is a mess and it’s shot,” said Johnson. “The potential health hazard out there is mold.”
Yet, without national standards on which molds pose a health hazard and the amount of mold it takes to affect a person’s health, Johnson said declaring the building a health hazard may be a “really tough battle in court” if the mall’s owner contested the declaration. The Minnesota Department of Health has recommended Janssen not make the declaration, Johnson said.
Commissioner Don Linssen said he was concerned for the employees who work in the stores still operating in the mall. There have been no reports to date of employees with health issues related to the mall’s environment.
“Terri said if they were getting sick and coming forward, then it’s pretty easy to say it’s a public health hazard,” Johnson said. “That’s just not happening.”
At this point, Johnson said it would take a warrant to be able to get a company to address the health hazards at the mall.
Addressing the public health issue with Mike Kohen, the absentee owner of the mall, is just one of two issues the county has with the current state of the building. The second is Kohen’s failure to pay property taxes on the mall.
Johnson said it would take five years of non-payment of taxes to pursue eminent domain on the mall facility, but there may be a way to expedite that.
“We’ve got a pretty good indication that he’s not even going to try and catch up,” Johnson said.
“It sounds to me like the health issue or the tax issue is the only thing we could do,” Commissioner Gene Metz added.
The mall’s deterioration has led to a decline in its property value as well as tax base.
“Its value is less than half of what it was,” Johnson said. “The liability to tear it down is double what the value is.”
In other topics, commissioners:
* Received a report from Johnson on Lewis & Clark funding. The state legislature had made some assumptions in writing the language for the financing of Lewis & Clark in Minnesota, and Johnson said some things need to be fixed.
If the state meets in special session to discuss funding for flooding issues, Johnson said he’s hopeful it can fix the Lewis & Clark bill at the same time. He said he would like the $22 million in state funds used to make the entire Minnesota portion of Lewis & Clark shovel-ready, and use the remaining funds to start building the line.
* Discussed the 2015 budgeting process, which begins this month. Johnson will create a letter to send to department heads. At this point, he said he expects several departments to submit requests for additional staff.
“I think the biggest staffing question is, ‘What aren’t we doing for the public that this person is going to add?’” Johnson said. “If we’re putting in 50 to 60 hours … to serve the public, then that justifies (another person).”
With the exception of maintenance and public works (for snow removal), Johnson said there has been very little overtime.
“The staffing is always a hard question - there are things you can do if you have an extra person,” he added. “For all practical purposes, we’ve done a pretty good job on budget. Staff has done a good job, and we want to compliment them on that.”
* Discussed the potential to create a multi-county loop for broadband services, and plans for the Nobles Economic Opportunities Network (NEON) to develop a working group to discuss a regional broadband network.
Metz suggested bringing providers together to determine their willingness to participate.
“If we’re going to be serious about it, we need to consider putting in a loop and having providers build over top of that,” he said.
The Blandin Foundation has grants available to rural communities to conduct feasibility studies for developing broadband networks.
* Discussed plans to get the community services office and the public health department combined on the second floor of the Nobles County Government Center. Currently, public health offices are operating on the third floor.
“I think it’s the right thing to do,” said Johnson. “I think there’s some tremendous efficiencies to be gained down there.”
He said staff would be directed develop a plan for the move.
* Discussed giving direction to the county’s land records team regarding prioritizing projects for the Geographic Information System (GIS). Metz suggested having a Top Five list of projects the county would like to see included in GIS mapping. Some examples are mapping locations where known sex offenders reside, mapping of traffic crashes, and locating wells and septic systems.
* Learned the county attorney’s office has used up its full-year budget for children in need of protective service (CHIPS) cases. There are currently 44 cases overseen by the county.
* Gave consensus to have a prayer at 8:55 a.m. - five minutes before the start of the county board meeting - on each meeting date. The local ministerial association will rotate pastors to lead the group in prayer.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.