FORMER COUNTY ADMINISTRATOR BRIAN BENSEN gave a farewell speech during the final meeting in July. He retired Aug. 1. Looking on were the county commissioners (from left) Bruce Anderson, Ewald Petersen, Rachel Leonard, Felix Schmiesing and John Riebel.

New administrator highlights 2013 county business

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Staff Writer
Ken Francis
What was the biggest story in Sherburne County in 2013?
It was probably the changing of the guard at the Government Center.  Aug. 1, Administrator Brian Bensen retired after 35 years with the county.
That left the county commissioners with a huge task -  selecting someone to fill the county’s most important position.
The board appointed Assessor Dan Weber as Interim Deputy Administrator while a recruiting firm tried to find a quality group of candidates to replace Bensen. After numerous meetings and interviews, the county board chose Steve Taylor as the new administrator in late September.
Taylor was the assistant county administrator in Carver County, where he worked for the past eight years. Prior to that, Taylor worked as the director of finance and administration for the City and County of Denver Public Library. 
Taylor thanked the commissioners for their vote of confidence when he started in his new position Nov. 4.
“I’m looking forward to getting a lot of work done. “You won’t see anyone who works harder than me,” he said. “I’ve made that commitment to the board.”
The county also welcomed back former sheriff Bruce Anderson as its newest county commissioner, serving Elk River. Anderson defeated Larry Farber in last November’s election. 
In Review
Although there were very few earth-shattering events that took place in the county, here are a few decisions (in chronological order) that will have an impact for county residents.
In March, the board filled in the final “piece of the puzzle” to complete Island View Park in Clear Lake Twp. by purchasing 8.13 acres of land near Co. Rd. 8 in Clear Lake Twp. from Patrick and Paula Fleming at a cost of $81,000.
The parcel was located between two other parcels already owned by the county and designated as a county park.
Feedlots
Also in March, the board voted down an amendment to the county zoning ordinance that would have established setbacks for feedlots.
Back in 2012, the county imposed a six-month moratorium on new feedlots and the expansion of existing feedlots while a task force researched the issue.
But there was no unanimous agreement between members of that task force. Farmers objected to the imposition of setbacks that could have had a big impact on their operations. 
Commissioner Felix Schmiesing said he wasn’t satisfied with the new amendment, which did not exempt existing feedlots from being subject to the new setbacks.
Appeal
In April, the board voted to file an appeal to overturn a decision by the board of adjustment to approve five variances for Chris Perkins on a 1.85-acre property on 42nd Street near Briggs Creek in Palmer Twp.
The board cited numerous environmental impacts if the variances were approved.
It was the first time the commissioners ever appealed a decision by the board of adjustment.
Energy
Three of the top four county taxpayers in Sherburne County continue to be utility and energy-related companies.
A report released in April by the county auditor/treasurer’s office showed power companies still constitute a significant tax base in the county.  Xcel Energy, now called Northern States Power Company - MN, is still the top taxpayer in the county by far with a net tax capacity of $8,343,540.
Southern Minnesota Municipal Power was next at $3,264,154. Great River Energy was third at $1,207,288, followed by JPM Capital (United Healthcare Data Center) $509,102.
New Staff
In May, despite its goal to keep new hiring down, the board agreed to add eight new staff members to Health & Human Services (HHS) because of additional mandates created by the Affordable Care Act.
HHS Director Ken Ebel told the board the number of new caseloads his department might encounter could be about 1,700, which couldn’t be handled with existing staff.
He asked the board to approve the addition of five eligibility specialists, one lead eligibility specialist, one child support officer and one office assistant effective July 1.
Wheelage Tax
In July, the board voted to adopt a wheelage tax of $10 per vehicle registered and stored in the county.
The tax applies to all vehicles, except motorcycles, scooters, trailers and certain collector and antique vehicles, which are specifically exempted.
Funds collected by the tax are specifically designated for road and bridge improvements. It is estimated the tax will bring in $750,000 to Sherburne County in 2014.
Tax Sale
The county held a tax forfeited lot sale in July. About 20 people gathered outside the auditor/treasurer’s department to bid on 195 lots in different areas of the county. Auditor/Treasurer Diane Arnold said 36 lots were sold, with a sales price total of $339,800. Only 12 lots sold the year before.
Park Access
In August, the board voted to move ahead with steps to allow more access and make improvements to Island View Park in Clear Lake Twp.  Zoning Administrator Nancy Riddle said members of the park board wanted to allow people to get to the river, but were not in favor of allowing motor boats.
“There was no decision to give motorized access to the river. It was mainly to open the gates so they have access down to the lower part,” she said. “In fact, the park commission is opposed to a motorized boat ramp.”
In September, the board voted to move ahead with the process of paying off the 2005 Heritage Center Lease Revenue Bond in February 2014.
Interest savings could be as much as $217,826.79 by not continuing to pay through the life of the bond, which ends in 2021. The move also allowed the county to cut debt service payments in the 2014 budget.
Smoking Ban
After a 30-minute discussion between the commissioners and members of  Sherburne County Health and Human Services (HHS) in September, the board decided not to make all county property smoke free.
After the Freedom to Breathe Act was passed in 2007 that prevented  smoking in government buildings and many businesses, the board adopted a policy designating outdoor smoking areas near three entrances of the Government Center.
HHS was attempting to amend the county’s policy to make all county-owned or leased property tobacco free, including parks. But some members of the board didn’t like the restrictions it put on the public. “I just don’t think us mandating and dictating to them is the answer,” said Commissioner Felix Schmiesing. “I think we have to protect non-smokers and I believe our 2007 policy does that.” 
Fairgrounds
In November, the board of commissioners approved the establishment of a committee that will look into where the county fairgrounds should be.
When members of the fair board approached the county about adding a building at the existing site in Elk River, commissioners questioned whether the fair should continue in the same location or move to Becker, where the county already owns land designated for a fairgrounds.
“I think you need to have a business plan here,” Commissioner Felix Schmiesing told fair board members Irene and Roger Kostreba, “where you can lay something in front of us and we can understand how you can sustain yourself for five years, seven years or whatever it might be.”
RiverRider
In December, the board voted to send a notice to Wright County to dissolve the RiverRider bus service joint powers agreement between the two counties.
The county has been looking into creating a more regional approach to mass transit, and is considering a possible joint effort with Tri-Cap in St. Cloud as a way to offer better service. 
  “I think it’s just a good move,” said Commissioner Bruce Anderson. “I sit on the both boards - RiverRider and Tri-Cap. We’ve been trying to provide better service in Elk River, Big Lake, Becker, Princeton and Zimmerman. For us, doing what we’re currently doing with RiverRider just isn’t a good fit. There is funding, so it’s a good time for us to make that split.”
Finally, the board passed the 2014 tax levy one percent lower than 2013.
Happy New Year.