As plans for future expansion in McGrath are underway, American Peat Technology (APT) and Aitkin County are in discussion about potential road improvements on a four-mile segment of Hwy. 26 near the proposed new peat processing facility. APT Vice President Peggy Jones and representative Courtney Bot gave an update during the Nov. 13 Board of Commissioners meeting.
The current APT location in Aitkin, in operation since 2003, harvests reed-sedge peat to produce value-added granular peat products for several industries. The Aitkin location will remain in operation, but it has reached capacity due to a high global demand for APT’s products, necessitating the second location. The company is in the early stages of conducting engineering and analysis for the McGrath project.
APT expects to undergo a full environmental review process due to the scope of the project, Bot said. The estimated timeline is to submit the Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in the first quarter of 2019. If approved by the state next summer, the final scoping decision document will be submitted in the fall, followed by an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and permitting. Construction is expected to begin in 2021 and continue through 2027.
“We anticipate that schedule will continue moving forward rapidly,” Jones said.
With the construction and operation of the new plant, Jones anticipates increased traffic and heavy truckloads on Hwy. 26. The new facility in McGrath will be larger than APT’s current location in Spencer Township and employ 25-40 people. At full operation, it will export dozens of semi-loads of product each week in addition to receiving truckloads of biomass used to fire its primary dryers, Jones said. Truck and semi traffic will be directed to Hwy. 65.
Currently, Hwy. 26 is restricted to a five-ton weight limit during the spring weight restriction period, Engineer John Welle said. The gravel road is not all-weather, and poses safety concerns with occasional flooding in the springtime.
Improvements to the road would be needed to accommodate a year-round 10-ton weight access. Welle said it would be most cost-effective to pave the four-mile segment as part of the road improvement. The road improvement is estimated to cost $2-3 million and is not included in the county’s 2019-2023 capital road improvement plan. Commissioner Mark Wedel asked if the road improvements would be subject to subsidies. Welle responded that the county receives about $3.5 million a year to improve state aid highways in Aitkin County, which includes Hwy. 26, and other grant options would also be explored.
In preparation for the EAW and EIS, APT must include information on the environmental impact, or “footprint,” of the road improvements in the assessment since it’s considered a connected action to the project, Bot explained. Welle said the assessment will take some time to complete.
Welle then presented the five-year Capital Road Improvement Plan, noting a change from the list presented at the budget presentation in August based on new bridge and pavement condition data. The Hwy. 26 road improvement project would be subject to future board approval, pending the progress of APT’s environmental review.
Doug Host of CliftonLarsonAllen presented the 2017 audit. An unmodified opinion on financial statements was issued, which is favorable.
Host noted a significant deficiency in internal control regarding segregation of duties. Administrator Jessica Seibert commented, “This is a common occurrence in small counties due to the nature of the work. In many cases, it would require an increase in staffing to address the separation of duties.”
Host also identfied a significant deficiency in Health and Human Services (HHS) ability for employees to both create vendors and process disbursements. Recommendations also included a formal risk assessment and monitoring procedures be put in place.
Minnesota legal compliance tests found the county didn’t publish all claims exceeding $2,000 including a statement, which is seen frequently in other counties, Host said. The county is not allowed to donate money to people unless allowed by specific authority. The Health and Human Services department has an imprest fund where it distributes cash to clients when in need.
There were no reportable items when tested for child support compliance. Medical Assistance compliance tests showed a material weakness in the county’s review and documenting over case files. Of 60 Medical Assistance case files tested, five had supporting documentation of assets that didn’t match MAXIS; one had no supporting documentation but had asset information listed in MAXIS; two had no proof of documentation of U.S. citizenship but were receiving benefits; and one had supporting documentation for income that did not match MAXIS.
“These items are common across counties,” Host said.
HHS has begun addressing the issues and will give and update at its upcoming scheduled board meeting.
In addition, a significant deficiency was found where the listing of county employees working on human services was incorrect, which impacted the allocation but not a dollar amount received, Host explained.
Financial results for 2017 were reported as sufficient and stable. The county had seven months of fund balance in reserves. The recommendation is a minimum of three to five months of fund balance reserves.
In 2017, expenditures exceeded revenues by approximately $337,000. Expenditures were down by approximately $3 million from 2016. Road and Bridge expenditures have slightly exceeded revenues since 2015. HHS saw a $573,000 decrease in expenditures for 2017, which is uncommon according to Host. Long Lake Conservation Center operated at a loss.
Financial results indicated expenditures in the general, road and bridge, human services and forfeited tax funds were under budget. There were also reduced revenues that must be taken into account for an overall accurate picture, Host said.
Sheriff Scott Turner presented the Lifesaving Award to Aitkin High School senior Emma Sherman. On July 4 at 10:54 p.m., Sherman and other teens were watching fireworks on a dock when a 15-year-old male dove into shallow water. The young male seemed to be struggling, so Sherman swam to him and found he was unresponsive. She was able to keep his head above water and moved him to shore where she performed CPR until he began breathing again.
The male was airlifted to Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis. “While he has some challenges ahead of him, now he has the opportunity to face those challenges,” Turner said. He and the board commended Sherman for her actions which resulted in saving the young boy’s life.
Commissioners thanked Aitkin County veteran employees for their service in honor of Veterans Day. Employees were: Aaron Bochow, Ashley Burton, Don Courier, Dee Curtis, Randy Flier, Daniel Guida, Penny Harms Monroe, James Hicks, Joshua Hughley, Carter Johnson, Paul Kazmerzak, Allen Lundquist, Scott Malloy, John Novotny, Jedediah Oftedahl, Butch Olson, Bruce Pierson, Phillip Smith, Shawn Speed, Christian Sutch, Kevin Turnock and Gary Willkie.
• Northeast Minnesota Office of Job Training Career Councilor Kari Paulsen said the first career fair hosted at Aitkin High School was a success. There were 41 businesses, 11 colleges and 600 students from two local school districts in attendance. Future plans are to extend invitations to Crosby and Isle school districts, and hire a professional speaker on job etiquette for all districts prior to the bi-annual event.
• The board approved a change order of $46,216 for Holden Electric to complete work on the Aitkin County building project. The remaining contingency fund balance is $283,315. The specialties contract with Bartley Sales totaling $36,523 was also approved. Travis Feuchtmann with Contegrity Group Inc. added there will likely be a cost savings of $40,000 by changing the interior paint brand.
• The Arrowhead Counties Association requested input from the board regarding ranking of potential 2019 legislative priorities. First on the priority list for commissioners was to fund counties to reimburse costs associated with the clean up of blighted, tax forfeit properties. Second was to fix PILT for acquired lands and protect the success of PILT increases for DNR administered lands. Third was state takeover of the non-federal share of ICWA costs. Fourth was local road wetland replacement program, and last was state assumption of 404 permit program.
• Administrator Jessica Seibert reported the third quarter budget was on track.
• Frozen sick leave severance payouts were approved for Karla White and John Drahota to be deposited into their Minnesota State Retirement System Health Care Savings Plan accounts.
• The county will be requesting exemption applications of churches, schools and other exempted institutions due to a change in Minnesota Statute Section 272.025. This has rarely been done in the past and may generate questions and concerns, said Assessor Mike Dangers. He does not anticipate any changes in exemptions around the county as a result of this process.
• There are four open seats on the Aitkin Area Chamber of Commerce. Applications are due by Friday, Nov. 23. Apply online at http://aitkin.com/board-of-directors/apply/
• Aitkin County Growth will be offering space for adult vocational training in January and February.
• Volunteers are needed to teach Junior Achievement (JA) courses at Aitkin Schools. JA is a nonprofit organization that teaches students in grades K-12 about money management, entrepreneurship, and prepares them to succeed in school and beyond. Schedules are flexible and most classes are 30-40 minutes long. All materials are provided. Visit the Junior Achievement Aitkin County Facebook page or call 320-364-1250 for more information.
• The Fish House 5K is on Nov. 23 from 7-10 a.m. The Vintage Snowmobile Display is from 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. Visit Santa and Mrs. Claus from 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. The World Famous Fish House Parade is from 1-2 p.m.
• Christmas on the Mississippi is on Dec. 7 from 5-6:30 p.m.
• The next Aitkin Economic Development Committee meeting is Dec. 12.
• River Trails Committee Ripple River clean-up is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 12. Contact Kathy Ryan at email@example.com or 218-927-2527 if interested in volunteering.
• Aitkin Chamber’s Annual Dinner is on Jan. 25, 2019, at the 40 Club Convention Center.