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Commissioners discuss wheelage tax, prep for same-sex marriage

Correction: This story originally stated that County Attorney Aaron Jordan presented a proposal to abolish the Morris Police Department. That was incorrect. At the meeting, Commissioner Ron Staples suggested it was time for Stevens County and the city of Morris to discuss combining law enforcement. Jordan provided some information about the process and the board agreed that commissioners Staples and Bob Kopitzke would meet with City Manager Blaine Hill and Sheriff Jason Dingman to discuss the issue further. We sincerely apologize for the error. 

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote about offering federal benefits to same-sex couples to Commissioner Ron Staples. The quote should have been attributed to Commissioner Phil Gausman. The story has been corrected to reflect that change.

By Michael Strand Morris Sun Tribune

MORRIS -- The Stevens County Board of Commissioners decided to implement a wheelage tax increase for road repair projects. The resolution will be voted on at the August meeting. In addition, the board heard updates on changes following the legalization of same-sex marriage in Minnesota.

On Tuesday, County Engineer Brian Giese expanded on the two tax options for funding local road projects that were presented at last month’s meeting. One proposal was a half-cent sales tax and the other a $10 wheelage tax that would be added to the cost of licensing a vehicle in the county.

Giese said that the wheelage tax would raise less money than the sales tax—about $95,000 per year—but is the best option because it lends flexibility to where the funding goes. For example, some wheelage money can be accumulated over a number of years for large projects, or the money could be spent on an annual basis for smaller projects. The sales tax funds, on the other hand, have been mandated by the state legislature to be earmarked for specific projects.

“My key message is that the need for road repair and rebuilding cannot be met under current property tax and state aid allotments,” Giese said in an interview. “The tax increases are a way to compensate so we can do more, though it’s definately not enough for everything. There is a constant gap between available funding and need.”

Giese said he will draft a resolution for implementing the wheelage tax to be voted on at the next meeting. He also reported that road repair and gravel grading has been largely completed following this year’s late spring.

Stevens County Human Resources Director Janet Raguse presented on HR changes following the legalization of same-sex marriage in the state of Minnesota. Beginning August first, same-sex couples will be allowed to marry in the county as well as have access to benefits such as the option to take leave in order to care of a sick spouse.

Though the law automatically extends state benefits to same-sex couples employed by the county, it does not require extending federal benefits such as COBRA or FMLA. The board voted to extend these benefits to all future same-sex couples employed by the county.

“Regardless of how you personally feel on the subject, it's going to be a policy issue and at some point in time I think if you don't take the action you'll be forced to,” said Commissioner Phil Gausman.

The board also discussed when in July marriage licenses would begin being issued to same-sex couples. County Attorney Aaron Jordan said that, under state statute, licenses have to be issued at least five days before the marriage date. He said he’d work on a hard date to be announced soon so same-sex couples can be sure to marry on Aug. 1. He said other preparations are in place to ensure a smooth transition.

In other business:

•  The board tabled for future discussion a proposed smoking ban on the grounds of the Stevens Traverse Grant Public Health building in Morris. Concerns with the current proposal included the shifting of smokers away from county property and onto neighbors’ land, as well as the difficulty of enforcing the rule.

•  The board heard a report the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, a big-picture summary of the county’s economic landscape. The report included the most recent census data, which put the population of Stevens County at 9,750 people, the first increase in population since the mid-1980s. The report also covered average salary intake for various economic sectors, as well as unemployment data.