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Board disagrees on County buildings (01/30/2008)
By John Edstrom

Citizens of Winona County are mostly in the dark about plans to build anywhere from a $13 to $51 million expansion of the county campus, even though County Administrator Bob Reinert had indicated that he would like a decision on building options to be arrived at by January 29, yesterday. (Curious taxpayers should know that County Auditor Cherie MacLennan estimates the cost for $10 million in bonding would be $17 annually for a $150,000 home, which by simple multiplication comes out to $86.70 for the $51 million option. She would not venture a guess about the added cost to agricultural properties.)

This seems like the kind of project that the citizens would like to know about, before it is a fait accompli, yet earlier this month when the County Board met with department heads and Wold Architects to discuss it, the media and public were not notified. This sounds like the sort of illegal meeting that, in the past, various parties in county government have been touchy about being accused of taking part in. So we called the attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, Mark Anfinson, and described it to him.

Mark said it sure would appear to be an illegal meeting to him. Under Minnesota open meeting law, the public and the media must be duly notified of any meeting of a quorum of the County Board. We would encourage the county attorney or administrator to come forward and explain how this meeting was not a secret and illegal one, in which the expenditure of enormous amounts of public funds was discussed in ways which are still unclear.

Commissioner Jim Pomeroy told the Post that "It's time to move forward with debate on the issue." His opinion is that the Main Street Government Center should be retained, as agreeable to most departments housed there, and a much more economical alternative to new construction. He also criticized a $13 million plan to create more space for various county services as inflated, stating those needs could be met at a fraction of the price.

"I think the bottom line is going to be what we are able to do in a way that's going to be respectful to the taxpayers," said Pomeroy.

At yesterday's meeting of the County Board, it was tentatively decided that an adddition would be built to the County Office Building on 3rd Street to house various county offices now occupying space at the Plaza Square Building which the county just sold to Merchants Bank. Wold Architects had put a $13 million price tag on the project, although Commissioner Pomeroy has said he believed it could be done for much less.

It was also agreed, tentatively, to replace the Law Enforcement Center with a new building, at an unspecified price, to house police and sheriff's departments as well as some jail facilities, and more. However, the $22 million jail which County Attorney Chuck MacLean had advocated for at the Jan. 9 meeting was deemed unnecessary.

A philosophical divide was evident in later discussion among board members. Marcia Ward opined that the county should focus on services and not, "big, fancy buildings," and Jim Pomeroy reiterated his opinion that the board had to balance a need to provide services with a duty to do so at a reasonable cost to the taxpayers.

Board Chair Dwayne Voegeli favored a much more ambitious building plan which would tend to house county functions on one campus, in larger, newly constructed buildings. "Sometimes great's biggest enemy is good," he said, misparaphrasing the French philosopher, Voltaire, who said, "The best is the enemy of the good."

I looked that up in my Bartlett's Familiar Quotations and was amused to find it preceded by this one: "In general, the art of government consists in taking as much money from one class of citizens to give to the other." The voters should always bear this in mind before they vote anyone into a second government job.

It is good to see that Winona County government has developed voices who are beginning to oppose the spendthrift, let's-go-shopping mentality that has prevailed there in recent years.



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