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Looking to save money and improve services, Becker County looking outside the box

The Becker County Board is serious about wanting to work with other units of government to save money and improve services.

On Tuesday it hosted a commissioners' room full of officials from townships, cities, school districts -- even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Think outside the box

"You know what? This is a brainstorming session," said County Auditor-Treasurer Ryan Tangen. "Just throw anything out there. Let's look at the grand scheme of things -- how can we work together to enhance services in the current (economic) climate?"

A combination of the Becker County and City of Detroit Lakes economic development and housing departments may be considered at some point, said Board Chairman Barry Nelson.

The offices sit blocks apart in downtown Detroit Lakes, and many of the county housing units are in Detroit Lakes city limits, he noted.

But the county board wants to make sure smaller cities don't get left out in the cold.

"We know housing and EDA to be very important to our smaller communities," he said. "We want to continue with a county-wide EDA, but do it more efficiently."

Another cooperative venture on the horizon may well involve a public works facility shared by Becker County and Detroit Lakes.

The county highway department is located on the north side of Detroit Lakes next to the railroad tracks. It has space constraints and issues with older buildings. The city street department is located just a few blocks east and has similar issues.

Nelson said there's talk of locating a shared facility in the vicinity of Highway 59 North, but the location is flexible and could be based on whether any townships are interested in joining the collaboration.

A number of organizations and government units are considering building projects in the next few years, and those at the meeting also discussed possible collaboration in those areas.

Space needs

Terry Kalil, the vice president of Becker County Coalition of Lake Associations, noted that "there's a real shortage of public meeting space in this community." The largest room available is probably at M State, which holds 300 people, but "that's not always big enough anymore," she said.

The county is looking at the need for "a multiple-use training center available to all," said County Human Resources Director Nancy Grabanski. That would allow training to be conducted locally and save government travel expenses, she said.

Lake Park-Audubon School Superintendent Dale Hogie noted that, with a new high school being built in Lake Park, the existing high school building will be available for those looking for a facility outside Detroit Lakes.

The former county highway shop in Ponsford is also available if anyone is interested, Nelson noted.

With the relocation of the municipal liquor store next fall, Detroit Lakes will likely have space available at the site of the existing liquor store, said City Administrator Bob Louiseau.

Sharing top officers?

The county is considering whether to fill the vacant county administrator position, share administrative services with another county or city, or restructure the county's administrative design.

Louiseau urged the county to keep its current structure and fill the vacancy. Having a full-time county administrator "works well," he said. "I've heard a lot of compliments about the county -- a major restructuring would be a mistake."

On a similar front, the county has already made overtures to Clay County to see if it is interested in sharing a county assessor.

Becker County Assessor Steve Skoog is also the county's solid waste director, and needs to focus on those duties:

30% recycling increase

The county is building a new transfer station and has joined a joint powers board for incinerator services at Perham. It currently ships its garbage to a landfill in the Fargo area, and that will continue for the next year or so.

Becker County has beefed up its recycling program and has seen a 30 percent jump in recycling since it replaced its recycling sheds with the big blue recyclable bins.

It is also looking seriously at building a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF, pronounced "merf") to capture and sort recyclables. If that occurs, it may affect townships, Nelson said.

The county has also ordered a load of the blue recycling bins that will be offered for sale or lease to private businesses that are interested in recycling.

The county and some townships are at odds over limited hours at township recycling sites.

If the blue bins aren't made more freely available, those townships might see cuts in their state pass-through recycling funding.

Trudy Maninga, a Pine Point Township supervisor, asked the board to consider townships on a case-by-case basis.

"There are huge problems that exist in our area that you won't see in urban areas or larger townships," she said. "We don't have a larger space to put five bins, and we can't put them in Pine Point village (for jurisdictional reasons)."

She added that "the old system worked well for us, and we ask for some consideration..."

Shoreland specialist

Nelson said Becker County also hopes to hire a shoreland specialist, similar to one already working for Otter Tail County, to work with landowners, the county planning and zoning department and the county soil and water office on lakeshore issues.

"The county will try to get grant money for a start-up position," Nelson said.

New fire department?

Residents in the Cormorant village area would like to launch a new fire department, since fire departments in Lake Park and Audubon can have a distance to travel to get to fires in the southwestern part of the county.

Nelson cautioned that it could be a "large undertaking" to find the volunteers necessary to start up a new fire department.

But Commissioner Larry Knutson noted that "Carsonville Township just started another fire station in Osage, so it can be done."

It was the third such brainstorming meeting the county board has held.

It's important to the county that ideas that come from the brainstorming sessions don't get left on the shelf to gather dust.

"We want to make sure there's a formal work group that takes ideas and carries them down the road," Tangen said.