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County takes steps to 'clean up its act' at transfer station

The Carlton County Board and Zoning and Environmental Services Director Heather Cunningham aren't wasting any time in making certain the recent abuses of power alleged to have taken place at the Carlton County Transfer Station won't happen again.

The Carlton County Board and Zoning and Environmental Services Director Heather Cunningham aren't wasting any time in making certain the recent abuses of power alleged to have taken place at the Carlton County Transfer Station won't happen again.

Recently released employee Joanne Wappes faces charges of theft in regard to large sums of money found in her home and bank accounts thought to be the result of maneuvering the cash register receipts over the 30 years she worked at the Transfer Station.

In a presentation to the Board on Monday, Cunningham informed commissioners that her department is working on a plan to improve transparency in pricing and customer service at the Transfer Station. Cunningham said she requested that the Solid Waste and Recycling Committee (SWARA) assist her office with both issues in order to develop a future action plan.

One of the measures under consideration, Cunningham said, is to make certain customers understand what they are charged for at the Transfer Station.

"Our current rate structure indicates that all loads above two containers will be charged by the vehicle rather that the container," she said. "This has created some confusion with our customers."

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She went on to state that a proposed rate structure reshuffling would allow for more container pricing (up to six bags) and should help clarify some of the "judgment calls" that were allegedly made in the past. Cunningham said the SWARA reviewed the proposed pricing structure at their meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 22, and recommended approval. The proposed rate structure changes have been posted on the county's website, and Cunningham said she expects to ask the board to take final action on them following the completion of a customer service survey also being planned.

Cunningham explained that the customer service survey will be conducted the week of Nov. 18 for customers at the Transfer Station. Among the questions to be asked will be how often that customer utilizes the Transfer Station, what type of waste is deposited, what typical amount is delivered there, if the customer pays by cash, check or credit card, and whether they would be opposed to eliminating cash as method of payment.

"Eliminating cash transactions would reduce the checks and balances that this office would need to conduct in order to maintain both integrity and security at the Transfer Station," Cunningham explained in an accompanying memo to the Board. "I requested the SWARA Committee assist our office in conducting a survey at the Transfer Station to determine whether we can eliminate cash transactions and still provide good customer service."

The survey will also be available on the county's website for the month of November.

Cunningham said once the survey is complete, she will provide a summary with recommendations to the County Board on a rate structure and types of payment the Transfer Station will accept. Once the rate structure has been approved by the Board, it will be posted at the Transfer Station to the right of the cashier window and on the county's website as well.

"We had been planning a survey already," she said, "but the recent review of operations at the Transfer Station makes it important to do it now."

$6 million upgrade to NERCC

In other business on Monday, commissioners unanimously approved a resolution in support of a $6 million facilities upgrade at the Northeast Regional Corrections Center (NERCC). Kay Arola, director of Arrowhead Regional Corrections (ARC), explained that part of the county's commitment as a member of the five-county ARC will be to support the project based on its five-year average rate of utilization at the facility, which amounts to 8.2 percent of the beds, or a total of $492,000. She explained the money will go toward much-needed capital improvements at the aging facility. Construction on the project will start shortly after Jan. 1, 2014, and Arola promised to supply the Board with ongoing progress reports.

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Proposed courthouse remodeling

County Coordinator Dennis Genereau discussed a possible remodeling project for the Carlton County Courthouse, explaining that space in the facility is currently at a premium and there will likely be a need for more in the not-too-distant future. Genereau explained that the building hasn't been significantly remodeled since the 1970s, when the fourth-floor courtroom was put in, and added the building is "significantly out of date." He cited lack of restroom facilities on every floor and the increasing need for court space as just two of the issues needing to be addressed.

Genereau asked that commissioners approve a request for $13,500 to hire the architectural firm of DSGW of Duluth to provide technical assistance in examining the space needs at the courthouse, conducting a comprehensive assessment of what can be done there and determining if the 91-year-old building is still structurally sound enough to justify remodeling.

One of the issues that could jump start the necessity to remodel, Genereau said, is the fact that the Sixth Judicial District is looking at possibly adding another judge in both Carlton and St. Louis counties, based on their growing case loads. Genereau said there is barely adequate space at present to house the judicial chambers and backup staff, and he said if another judge was assigned to the county there would be nowhere to house him or her. He added that if the county decides to add a drug court, there would be still further demands for courtroom space.

Genereau went on to suggest the county consider making the courthouse into a judicial center and relocate its land and records offices to the area where the County Transportation Building now stands.

Commissioner Tom Proulx commented, "You seem to have a plan in place already. It seems like a lot of money [to hire an architect] just to get a stamp of approval."

Genereau responded by saying county staff doesn't feel qualified to determine such things as which walls can be removed and what modifications can be made on a building listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Commissioner Gary Peterson questioned if some of the judicial staff who only visit the courthouse on a periodic basis could possibly share space in the future, but Genereau said the building is "busting at the seams right now."

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The Board unanimously approved the request to fund to the study.

Letter to Enbridge regarding pipeline proposal

Finally, the Board approved a letter to be sent to Enbridge Energy on behalf of the county encouraging Enbridge to consider options for its proposed Sandpiper Pipeline that do not include establishing new right-of-way in Carlton County.

"A new right-of-way through Carlton County could cause unacceptable disturbance to the environment, landowners and their unique farms, forests and wetlands," the letter, signed by Board Chair Bob Olean, read.

The message of the letter went on to urge Enbridge to utilize either the current right-of-way on its proposed Northern Route or other established corridors in order to minimize disturbance to the environment and county landowners.

Related Topics: CARLTON COUNTY
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