MnDOT officials talk transit with Wadena County Commission
The Wadena County Board met with MnDOT district 3 transit project manager Sue Siemers and transit facilities program coordinator Kent Ehrenstrom took part via a telephone conference to discuss the possibilities of relocating the Friendly Rider transit buses and staff.
In large part, the negotiations were a replay of what happened on Dec. 6 at a special board meeting. Commissioners Ron Noon and Rodney Bounds opposed the purchase of a bank-owned building, formerly Bob's Auto, to house the Friendly Rider program, instead promoting the renovation of the Wensman Building already owned by the county.
The Wensman Building, as previously reported in this newspaper, is on the National Register of Historic Places, and would be difficult and expensive to remodel for the Friendly Rider buses and staff, if not impossible. In past years, architects have drawn up cost estimates of about $500,000 to bring the building up to current public building codes, to install sprinkler and ventilation systems, to insulate the walls and roof, to put in floor drains for the garage area, and other expenses.
Commissioners Jim Hofer and Bill Stearns, along with social services director Paul Sailer and county engineer Ryan Odden support the purchase of the Bob's Auto building and oppose the renovation of the Wensman Building for Friendly Rider purposes.
Siemers and Ehrenstrom explained the position of MnDOT. MnDOT will reimburse the county for the purchase of Bob's Auto, currently under a purchase agreement with the county for $132,000, that expires on Dec. 31. After the county makes modifications to the building so that it can house the Friendly Rider buses and staff, MnDOT will lease the building from the county for an estimated $2,500 to $3,000 per month for ten years. MnDOT will not pay for the renovation of the Wensman Building and will not pay to lease it from the county.
The estimated cost of the renovations, according to Odden, is $42,000.
And that's not the only issue. Siemers told commissioners that a program of regionalizing transit services was going to be implemented throughout Minnesota, and that Wadena County could become a hub of transit services for several counties. If Wadena County doesn't become the hub, then another county will and the Friendly Rider dispatch center would move to the county where the hub was positioned.
But, "You have to come to us, we can't come to you," said Siemers. In other words, commissioners have to submit a proposal to MnDOT for Wadena county to become a MnDOT regional transit hub. The hub would bring additional jobs to the county.
Stearns confirmed Siemers' assertion. "Consolidation is coming, and the question is which do you want: to be consolidated, or to do the consolidating? Do you want to keep two dispatch jobs here? Wadena County taxpayers pay nothing for this program. Friendly Rider is good for (Wadena). It gives senior citizens mobility."
Sailer and Odden spoke in favor of the transit hub concept and keeping the dispatch center for Friendly Rider in Wadena county.
"I agree with Paul (Sailer). The state is giving us an opportunity to create jobs and residual economic benefits. Tri-County Hospital's use of Friendly Rider is extensive and is keeping people in this town who might otherwise move away to somewhere else if there is no transit," said Joel Beiswenger, President and CEO of Tri-County Health Care.
"Most patients use [Friendly Rider] to get to the clinic, the grocery store, and so on. Some use it two or three times a day. Our community is made up of these older people. The Friendly Rider is first class, and all of us are thankful that it's there," said Dr. John Pate, a family practice physician at Tri County Hospital.
"People move to Wadena because we have transit," said Friendly Rider transit coordinator George Behl.
Board chair Dave Hillukka weighed in. "We'd be fools to do this before we see what the cost [of renovation] is. We should look more carefully at the Wensman Building. There hasn't been any bargaining with the real estate brokers [over the price of Bob's Auto].
As often happens at board meetings, no one wanted to make a decision. So someone made a motion to put off the vote until another meeting. Stearns made a motion that the county negotiate over the next four days with the bank that owns Bob's Auto to see if the county could get a lower price than currently offered for purchase of the building. The motion was seconded and approved. So the subject will be brought up again at a special meeting planned for Dec. 23.
Other topics acted upon by the commissioners include:
• Approval of a key card system for access to the sheriff's storage building at the fairgrounds.
• Approval of a purchase of a new American flag and two new Minnesota flags for the county's courtroom and boardroom.
• Approval of the region 5 economic development commission's proposal to facilitate county meetings regarding the establishment of a county economic development authority.
• Tabling of the proposed 911 ordinance for further study.
• Approval of a gambling permit for England Prairie Pioneer Club to hold a raffle on Aug. 24, 2014.
• Appointment of Dyan Ebert of St. Cloud as the county's new labor attorney.
• Selection of the Verndale Sun as the 2014 official county newspaper, because it was the low bidder.
• Tabling of the 2014 commissioners' compensation plan proposed by Noon.
• Final approval of the revised county personnel policy.
• Approval of the updated emergency operations plan prepared by Luke Mandershied, emergency management systems director.
• Approval of the purchase of two new squad cars for the sheriff's department in 2014.
• Approval of the 2013 DNR snowmobile safety enforcement grant.