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Highway Department ends year with cash balance leaving more money available for repairs

MORRIS, Minn. - The Stevens County Highway Department ended 2011 with a $1.357 million cash balance, which means the department will be able to free more funds for repairs and maintenance in the upcoming year, County Engineer Brian Giese told the Stevens County Board of Commissioners at their meeting Tuesday.

The resulting cash balance is higher than was expected during the 2012 budget development process thanks to unanticipated revenue from an insurance dividend, more contracted snow removal income and some cuts in services last fall, said Giese.

Still, 2011 was a challenging year for the department. By the beginning of the year, dozers were needed to push snow away from roadways. Heavy snow contributed to mild flooding, with record cold and rainy weather through July, Giese noted in the Highway Department's 2011 annual report.

During the second half of the year - which was very dry with above average temperatures - the department was able to continue outdoor maintenance through December because of the lack of snow.

In 2011, the county spent about $1.97 million on maintenance, up from $1.69 million in 2010, and $1.64 million in 2009. Construction costs - which Giese said bounce around from year-to-year based on project needs and available funding - amounted to about $1.82 million in 2011.

A big maintenance expenditure in 2011 was snow and ice control, a total of about $441,000. In 2010, the county spent $394,000 in 2010 and $365,000 in 2009. A major factor in the increase is the rising cost of fuel. The department also invested more money into repairs and replacements on gravel roads, spending $474,000 on resurfacing in 2011 (up from $245,000 and $228,000 in 2010 and 2009).

In contrast, the department has been cutting back on brush and weed control, spending $100,000 in 2011, compared to $190,000 and $170,000 in 2010 and 2009.

One maintenance project the department is moving forward with thanks to the unanticipated cash balance is a box culvert repair that is part of the County Ditch 15 system but also crosses a county state aid highway.

"It's desperately needed as a safety concern, and we've been pushing it back in the tight years to see how long we could get by with it," said Giese. "I'm looking forward to getting that done this year."

Stevens Forward! updates board

Stevens Forward!, a volunteer organization working to improve Stevens County, may be scaling back on it's 14 original goals in order to develop an agenda the group can more reasonably expect to accomplish.

Coordinator Carolyn Peterson and Chair Ray Farwell were at Tuesday's board meeting to provide an update on changes the group expects to make moving forward.

The majority of 20 committee members have come to the conclusion that Stevens Forward! has set more goals - "destiny drivers" - than can be accomplished by an all-volunteer organization with limited monetary resources, Farwell said.

"There were a lot of idealistic ideas put together, but without money and labor and time it's difficult to really accomplish what was put down," said Farwell.

The organization is working on a report of what has been accomplished since Stevens Forward! was formed, re-prioritizing the destiny drivers to a more manageable list and try to identify all organizations and entities that Stevens Forward! could partner with in trying to bring their goals into fruition, said Farwell.

"Our goal is to really work with different groups throughout Stevens County," said Peterson. "I think that will give an opportunity for the members of Stevens Forward! to get out into the communities, have a representative in each of the communities ... to get the word out about the efforts of Stevens Forward!, find out the information ... to enhance the efforts of Stevens Forward!"

Farwell also emphasized the importance of working with the board and thanked them for their monetary support for this year.

"The group that I see Stevens Forward! needs to satisfy the most, obviously, is you who created the effort," said Farwell. "If you have critical points to make, we'd appreciate hearing those and if there's a way to address them we'll try to do that. If we can't, we'll say we can't. Simple as that."

Other business

• The county will open bids on all three 2012 construction projects on April 11. The first bid is scheduled to open at 10 a.m. at the Highway Department, Giese said. The board will likely award contracts for the projects at their April 17 board meeting.

• The board approved a tobacco license application for Family Dollar.

• The board approved a request by a former homeowner to repurchase a tax-forfeited property in Chokio.

• The Highway Department will focus on shouldering and blading in April, with a secondary focus on repairing culverts, Giese said. Most gravel surfacing won't begin until May.