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County rejects low bidder on road project

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

The Stevens County Board of Commissioners tried hard to give a local contractor a shot at a challenging road project but in the end opted for a more experienced company.

On Tuesday, the board voted 3-1 with one abstention to award a road reconstruction project on County State Aid Highway 13 to Minnerath Construction of Cold Spring, which was the second lowest bidder on the project.

Koehl Excavating, of Hancock, submitted the low bid, but its inexperience in working on county projects - particularly one of the scope of the three-mile CSAH 13 project -- and questions about the availability of needed equipment and some certifications led the board to ultimately reject the bid in favor of Minnerath.

Koehl Excavating bid just under $761,000. Minnerath's bid was almost $783,000.

But some members of the board tried hard to convince others that this might be the project to let Koehl Excavating cut its teeth on.

A motion to award the bid to Koehl ended in a deadlock vote, with commissioner Ron Staples and Phil Gausman voting for the measure and Paul Watzke and Larry Sayre voting it down. Jeanne Ennen abstained, saying the Koehls were clients of her private business.

In a second vote, Gausman voted with Sayre and Watzke to award Minnerath the contract.

County Engineer Brian Giese did not initially make a recommendation, but spent about 30 minutes discussing ways in which the Koehl bid and Giese's conversations with the company didn't appear to allay his fears that the project might be too challenging. He specifically cited that the company didn't have, on hand, some necessary equipment nor erosion control certification.

Company officials stated they would get the equipment and certification and were willing to risk losing some money to gain the experience, but Giese was too skeptical. The project must be completed in a certain number of days or fines against the company kick in that could be substantial.

"They're much bigger risk-takers than I am," Giese said. "I don't see how they're not going to lose money. ... From the interview, they don't understand what they are doing but they want to learn."

When the board pressed Giese for his recommendation, he stated that he was not convinced the company was ready to take on a rural road project of its size. The company was unaware of some aspects of how to tackle the job and how much time it would take to complete the work.

"I'm not convinced their game plan is what I want," he said.

Watzke concurred, saying that he bore no disrespect to Koehl but that the county needed a more experienced company for the project.

"I think they're in over their head," Watzke said. "There's a learning curve that's not complete."

Staples, too, said he had concerns about Koehl's inexperience but was willing to take a lower bid and take a chance that the company would ably handle the work.

"I know the bidder and I think they are up to the challenge," Staples said. "I think they'll get it done. Where are they going to get started doing this kind of thing if they don't start locally?"

In other county business:

0 The county board approve hiring Nick Young as its maintenance supervisor. Young will be charged with handing the county's physical plant operations and maintenance.

Young is a licensed plumber and has experience in heating, ventilation and air conditioning and carpentry.

Young, a Frazee native, currently lives in Rothsay with his wife of 10 years and three children.

0 The board more clearly defined what benefits would be available to current and past election officials, and also voted to sunset insurance coverage for elected officials who would take office after May 1, 2011.

On a 3-2 vote, Staples, Gausman and Ennen approved a measure to limit county benefits to medical insurance only. Sayre and Watzke also wanted the benefits package to include dental and vision coverage.

Last month, the board voted to approve a new benefit policy for elected officials that begins immediately following the termination of their tenure in office.

The policy was changed after it was discovered that monthly payments to elected officials - which may or may not be used to buy individual health care insurance policies - would be considered a form of severance. Under state law, elected and former elected officials can't be paid severance.

Under the new policy, elected officials will be reimbursed for medical premiums at a maximum of $544 per month. The officials would be responsible for any costs exceeding that amount, and if premiums claimed are less than that, the excess funds are forfeited.

To be eligible, elected officials must serve a minimum of 10 years. The elected officials receive 75 percent -- $544 -- of the $725 single-plan county employees receive monthly to pay for health insurance premiums.

The elected officials must provide documentation of the eligible premiums prior to the benefits being paid, and the policy does not reimburse them for out-of-pocket costs for pre-tax health plan premiums.

Elected officials receive reimbursements for 25 percent of the months of their tenure, meaning that a person who serves 10 years (or 120 months) would receive 30 months of payments. An elected official would have to serve 40 years to reach the maximum of 10 years - or 120 months - of contributions.

0 The county will continue discussions with the City of Morris about possibly selling the Stevens Traverse Grant Public Health building to the city for a new City Hall, but the county is moving ahead with plans to place the building up for bid.

Morris city officials toured the public health building Monday, but there hasn't been a formal request to negotiate a purchase. The city briefly discussed a potential purchase at its last meeting.

The county has to put the building up for competitive bid unless another governmental agency wants to buy it.

Currently, there is no minimum bid for the building and bids will be opened at County Attorney Charles Glasrud's office at 4:35 p.m., May 11.

As part of its building project for the new courthouse, the county planned to move the public health staff to its former Human Services building on Highway 28 after that department was relocated in the newly refurbished courthouse. The public health staff is expected to move to its new location later this spring.

The county bought the building for $157,000 in 2001 and paid more than $43,000 for adjacent land and parking area, bringing the total to more than $201,000.

In its courthouse building and remodeling plans, the county budgeted revenue of at least $200,000 for the building.

Commissioner Larry Sayre, who does appraisals, said the building sale will be unique in that it is a well-constructed building that has few similarities with other commercial property in the area.

In another measure, the board approved hiring Holmgren Appraisals, of Willmar, to appraise the public health property. Holmgren bit $900 for the work, compared to bids between $1,500 and $1,800 by Thomas-Lauren, an Alexandria appraisal firm.