WORTHINGTON — After much deliberation and input from several department heads, Nobles County commissioners on Tuesday directed administration to work with the board chairman and vice-chairman to develop a plan to reopen county buildings in the wake of COVID-19.

Already on Monday, the Prairie Justice Center reopened its service window to be able to assist customers with such things as permits to carry. Sheriff Kent Wilkening said just five people came on the first day of reopening.

Also on Monday, the county’s public works facility on Diagonal Road reopened, but customers were required to call ahead and someone would meet them at the door.

Starting today, the Nobles County Government Center will begin scheduling limited appointments, but the building won’t actually open to start seeing appointments until May 26. The county will use an online scheduler, No Wait Inside, for people to schedule appointments with specific departments. Those without internet access will be directed to call the specific agency they need to speak with.

Much discussion focused on security and the need to have someone to monitor the door and allow people to enter for appointments. The county sought bids from three Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based security firms, and received one quote of $23 per hour. This was done after the county checked with the Minnesota West Law Enforcement program to see if cadets were interested in the job. Just one cadet expressed interest, and it wasn’t known Tuesday how many hours the individual could work.

Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson said the expense should be covered by any COVID-related grant money, if funds are made available. If not, the expense would have to come from the county’s contingency fund.

“Security is not what we need at the door,” said Commissioner Matt Widboom. “We need an information agent.”

Widboom said it would be more effective to use county staff, rather than pay two out-of-town people focused more on security than information.

Johnson, however, said staffing is already a challenge in departments and that may not be feasible.

Demuth expressed concerns about having a county employee staffed at the door, where they would be exposed to multiple people and potentially get the novel coronavirus as a result.

“I don’t want to push it on anybody, but I certainly don’t want to push it on any one of our citizens,” added Commissioner Gene Metz.

“We have to look out for the well-being of the people that come in here as well as employees,” said Commissioner Donald Linssen.

Once a plan has been developed, the county will work on getting the message to the people through media, social media and possibly direct mailing to county residents.

Support given for land acquisition

A resolution in support of a state land acquisition of 56.68 acres in the northeast quarter of Section 26, Bigelow Township, to be known as the Drost Tract of the Wachter Wildlife Management Area, was approved on a 4-1 vote.

Nobles County Pheasants Forever, with a grant from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources and money from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, is purchasing the property from landowner Jesse Drost. Management will be transferred to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources once the purchase is complete.

Nobles County Pheasants Forever President Scott Rall said the property is within the city of Worthington’s wellhead protection area near Lake Bella.

“We’re very excited about this property,” Rall said. “We have a long history of doing some of the best clean water work anywhere in the Upper Midwest. We are a model that is trying to be duplicated literally across five states.”

Rall said clean water protection remains the highest priority of Worthington Public Utilities because “it’s the only tap that nobody can shut off,” Rall said in quoting WPU General Manager Scott Hain. The city’s other water sources are appropriations from other water providers.

“He also shared with us that we have permanent grassland protection around our wellhead, and we’re one of the only communities that don’t struggle with nitrate issues,” Rall shared.

The 2019 taxes paid on the tract were $1,318. The payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) to be made to the county will be $3,487.50, noted DNR Area Wildlife Manager Bill Schuna.

County Board Chairman Justin Ahlers cast the lone vote in opposition. His reasoning wasn’t related to the clean water project, but rather what he sees as DNR mismanagement on other properties, including problems with high water levels on Herlein-Boote Slough and issues with the Lone Tree WMA.

“You want to be a partner with us and I want to be a partner with you, but it’s been very difficult in years past to get anything done on these parcels,” Ahlers said.

Schuna said recent efforts to trap beaver that have been plugging outlet structures on both properties have been successful, and noted that Herlein-Boote has been in drawdown since December 2018. Consecutive years of above normal precipitation have made for management challenges.

“We want to be a good neighbor, but really our ability to manage water levels when we get those extreme events are very, very limited,” shared DNR Regional Manager David Trauba.

Ultimately, Commissioner Bob Demuth Jr. moved to support the resolution, saying it was unrelated to the issues Ahlers raised, and the purchase of land in support of clean water stood on its own.

In other action, the board:

  • Accepted a $12,053.90 grant to help fund the purchase of seven new DS200 ballot tabulators for the Auditor-Treasurer’s office. This is lower than the nearly $23,000 requested, as the state received more applications and divided the grant dollars among all applicants. As a result, commissioners authorized spending an additional $684.41 toward the purchase. This was after already committing to paying 50% of the costs previously.

  • Rejected the lone bid received for replacement of the sidewalk in front of the Prairie Justice Center due to the high price tag. The heated sidewalk project will be rebid without the caveat that it be completed within a specific timeline.

  • Approved an application to the Nobles Home Initiative for a five-year tax abatement on construction of a new single-family home by Joey and Davi Bullerman at 19184 Cory Ave., Adrian.

  • Approved the hiring of four additional temporary election employees for the Auditor-Treasurer’s office at an estimated cost of $31,152.

  • Approved changes to the Law Library Fee, effective July 1. The new fee is $10 for civil, probate, conciliation court, felony, gross misdemeanor, misdemeanor and petty misdemeanor cases and $5 for parking.

  • Approved a professional service agreement with Lori Walker to provide training as an independent contractor within the Auditor-Treasurer’s office. Walker retired from her position within the department in late March.

  • Set the county’s Board of Appeal and Equalization meeting for 6 p.m. June 16 in the Farmer’s Room of the Nobles County Government Center.