State Sen. Paul Utke and State Rep. Steve Green visited with Hubbard County commissioners for nearly one-and-a-half hours about their local legislative priorities.

Topics at the Nov. 9 county board meeting ranged from tax-forfeited lands to mental health.

Special TFL bill

County commissioner Ted Van Kempen asked for the legislators’ help in passing special legislation that would allow Hubbard County to retain proceeds from its county tax-forfeited land sales and use that money to purchase former PotlatchDeltic Corporation acreage.

In November 2020, Potlatch sold approximately 72,400 acres in Minnesota – 10,310 of them in Hubbard County – to The Conservation Fund (TCF).

Newsletter signup for email alerts

“So we stand to lose 10,000 acres of tax base,” Van Kempen said.

In March 2021, TCF offered to work with the county over the next decade, if the county wishes to acquire some of the property. Around that same time, Hubbard County Land Commissioner Mark “Chip” Lohmeier approached Utke about the bill.

“Chip was telling me there was something like this on the Iron Range years ago, and thought maybe it could pass,” added Van Kempen.

Utke said the Senate and House bills (SF 1844/HF 2098) will still be active in the next legislative session. “It was introduced last year,” he said.

“Land should be privately owned. That’s what keeps our communities going,” Green said, commenting that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources “can’t afford to manage what they have. There’s so much land out there.”

Itasca-Heartland Spur

County commissioner Tom Krueger asked about the chances of state bonding to complete the Itasca-Heartland Connection Trail. “We got funding for the tunnel, but then there’s the rest,” he said.

Utke said, “The fact is the project has been started with the initiation of the tunnel, so typically a project like that, then you want to work toward completion.”

NorthStar Pellet

Van Kempen inquired about a 2020 bill that proposed a production incentive of $25 per metric ton in favor of NorthStar Pellets.

The county board provided a letter of support because the pellet manufacturer was looking to locate in northern Hubbard County.

It would also help the township, Van Kempen said, because the old Line 3 isn’t in use and so tax dollars will be lost.

Van Kempen pointed out that NorthStar Pellets would purchase residual waste from area businesses.

Utke said “we wanted that one real bad,” but one senator was against the bill. NorthStar Pellets will not be competing for any standing timber, he continued, so there should be no cause for concern about competition. “It was the perfect plant. Fortunate thing is it’s still active, to a degree. I hope those guys don’t give up on it quite yet.”

Mental health issues

County commissioner David De La Hunt said there needs “to be a real deep dive” on how to best approach mental health needs in the jails as well as schools.

“It starts not only in the jails, where bailiffs are expected to be mental health professionals, right down to your elementary schools with teachers having to deal with these things. We don’t have the facilities we apparently used to have,” he said.

Level 3 issues and above are “very disruptive” in the classroom, “yet there’s no place to go and no expertise to deal with it.”

De La Hunt said there might be “an on-campus solution or a shared solution amongst districts. And the same applies with counties with probation and specialty courts. All that stuff is intertwined and it’s getting bad, folks.”

Incarcerated individuals need services to improve or else they’ll repeat the criminal cycle, De La Hunt said.

He also mentioned that there is no funding for upkeep of the Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response (ARMER) radio system. ARMER currently serves as the primary communications tool for the majority of state, county and local public safety entities in Minnesota.

“The initial build-out of the infrastructure was funded through the 911 part of the taxes that are apparently sunsetting,” he said. “That needs to be addressed.”

Lobbying efforts

De La Hunt asked if the Association of Minnesota Counties needs to spend more money on lobbying to compete with the League of Minnesota Cities.

Utke replied that lobbying isn’t the issue. “What we deal with down in St. Paul is, it’s rural versus metro,” he said. “I think everyone is fully aware of rural issues. It’s just we have a lot of voices coming from the big city because that’s where the population is.”

As an example, he noted Senate District 2 is 872 square miles. “The smallest district in south Minneapolis is six miles – the footprint of Park Rapids. That’s what we’re up against; just the numbers.”