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Wadena County to reopen Verndale highway garage

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Wadena County to reopen Verndale highway garage
Wadena Minnesota 314 S. Jefferson 56482

After months of discussion, the Wadena County Board decided 4-1 to reopen the Verndale highway garage and end its practice of housing snow plow equipment in a city of Staples garage.

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The decision didn't resolve the confusion, however, over issues that have been discussed since commissioner Rodney Bounds and Ralph Miller first brought up the subject in February. While the controversy has centered on whether it cost the county more money to operate the Verndale garage or to rent space in Staples, the biggest concern expressed at Tuesday night's 7 p.m. discussion was the condition of Verndale's county roads the past two years.

Don Weniger, Verndale fire chief, said his concern is public safety. The school is not getting plowed out properly, he said. Last year it was 10:30 a.m. before the county plow came through.

"Two years ago when the equipment was in Verndale that street was cleaned out right away," he said.

Commissioner Lane Waldahl said he thought the city's contracted plow service was taking care of the county's Verndale streets last year.

Highway Engineer Joel Ulring said part of the confusion with this subject is that it was never his directive to change routes when the Verndale shop closed. He found out after the fact that a plow operator Verndale had contracted with was plowing the roads.

"It was not clear to me who had responsibility," he said.

That's why he prepared maintenance agreements with affected cities, Ulring said. Menahga accepted the county's offer and the county has had a long-standing agreement with the city of Wadena.

He submitted a proposal to the city of Verndale for the county to pay $2,880 for the city to plow the 1.8 miles of county road that run through the town.

Ulring said he was told it was brought before the council as he requested, but Mayor Ardith Carr said it was not and had not been voted on. She said the council agrees the city cannot afford to hire an operator to plow those roads, which she said is much higher than the $1,600 per mile the county offered.

Joe Pierce said he used to plow county roads in Verndale, but the routes were changed when he moved to Wadena with the grader.

Pierce and Ken Moyer, both county snow plow operators, each expressed dissatisfaction with the county's plowing operation since the shop was closed in 2007.

"I think it's really futile for me to sit on my hind end, getting paid by taxpayers, to drive an hour at least a day ... back and forth to Staples to plow snow when I could be in my truck and basically every mile I drive I'm accomplishing something by cleaning roads as I go," Moyer said.

Ulring said he placed his recommendation for the closing of the Verndale garage in the context of a larger set of goals he set when he first came to the county to make the department more efficient.

An unusually high number of county road miles, the age and number of the county's garages, and a duplication of tools and equipment to accommodate the spread out facilities were some of the inefficiencies he identified.

Ulring was surprised when he arrived that a county the size of Wadena had five highway department shops, he said. Each shop serves 87 miles of road.

"We should have like two shops," he said, which would more closely match the coverage area of surrounding counties.

The average length of time the county has occupied its four outlying shops in Verndale, Nimrod, Menahga and Sebeka is 59.5 years, he said. Some of the buildings are even older than the length of the county's occupation. There were no plans to upgrade the shops. Since Verndale is only five miles from Wadena it seemed to make sense to close the shop there, he said.

Utility costs at the older county building were also an issue, he said. Costs range from $2.27 per square foot to $3.17 per square foot to operate the buildings, including electricity, heating, water and telephones, but not including maintenance. He compared that to a facility Todd County built in 2002 that costs 73 cents a square foot to operate.

The highway department also recently lost county program aid amounting to approximately $200,000.

"Our intent is to serve residents of Wadena as efficiently as we can," Ulring said.

Almost two years ago the board made the decision to close the Verndale garage, and it's the board's decision if they should reopen it, he said.

"I'm not here to dictate what happens," Ulring said. "I'm here to educate you, to let you know where our department's at."

Ulring also presented a plan the highway department is looking into to not replace an employee who resigned in the spring as a cost-saving measure.

Bounds said while he thinks that issue is important, he thought Tuesday night's issue was the Verndale garage.

Ulring said he believes all the information he presented needs to be part of the discussion.

Bounds read a series of numbers he compiled using information he said he acquired from Ulring and highway department employees to help justify his point that closing the garage did not save the county money.

After a lengthy discussion, Miller said that since no one had challenged Bounds' numbers he was going to put forward the motion to reopen the garage. He maintained a position he's held since last fall's election that it did not make sense for the county to close the garage.

Bounds seconded the motion. He said he's been a businessman for 42 years and for the past two years the snow removal in Verndale has not been great.

In response to Miller's comment about not challenging Bounds' numbers, Ulring said he requested Bounds submit his numbers to him several weeks ago, but that never happened.

Waldahl shared Ulring's concern with the way Bounds presented the numbers.

"I wish you would have showed me in black and white instead of all this scratching," he told Bounds. "I even asked you to bring it in black and white, pass it out to everybody so we could see it."

Since he didn't think there was enough evidence of saving by either side, he thinks the board should go on with the vote, Waldahl said.

Waldahl, Bounds, Miller and Chairman Dave Schermerhorn voted to reopen the Verndale garage. Stearns voted nay. He thinks five garages is too many in a county the size of Wadena, he said.

Although Waldahl voted to reopen the garage he never expressed satisfaction with either side's arguments. At the time, he thought the county made a good decision to close the Verndale shop, but nothing says it can't move it back to Verndale for a year and see what kind of savings there are, he said.

"If it doesn't work I'm going to go back and say let's close Verndale and move everything to Wadena," Waldahl said.

Although the motion did not mention any revisiting of the issue, judging by Waldahl's comments it seems the door is not entirely closed on the subject of the Verndale garage.

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