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Little Marais, U.T. 1 residents have their say

Photo by Karin Smith Two dozen residents butted heads and brainstormed with the county commissioners on solutions to their concerns at the Oct. 13 board meeting in Little Marais.

The county commissioners took the show on the road Oct. 13, holding their board meeting at the Little Marais Community Center. Unorganized Territory No. 1, which includes Little Marais, parts of rural Finland and Cramer, has no town board; the county board serves as the local unit of government. Two dozen residents turned out and spoke up.

Caution: no shoulders

Highway 61 safety dominated the conversation, in particular concerns about the shoulderless stretch between Birch Cliff Road and the Cook County Line.

Long overdue for maintenance, it passes through a commercial district with no place to pull over when turning into driveways or avoiding emergency vehicles. Then there's the straightaway where vehicles speed to pass with no room for forgiveness; the one-hundred-year-old culvert; the flooding at the intersection of Highway 61 and County Road 6 that reduces the highway to one lane; bicycles competing for space with Monson trucks; and tires and car parts littering the ditches from the vehicles that didn't quite make it.

Commissioner Paul Bergman said that although Hwy 61 had been designated a scenic byway and was important for homeland security as well, "It looks like a back road down South."

Citizens were urged to write Rep. Oberstar, head of the House transportation committee, at his Duluth office. Board chair Scott Larson suggested sending photos that documented the state of the road. Residents were also asked to help put the pressure on MnDOT to come up with the 20 percent match needed for federal funding and to engage visitors and seasonal residents in their lobbying efforts.

At the next board meeting, Commissioner Thomas Clifford, who represents the area as part of District 1, said it they would be moving up the Little Marais stretch of the highway in their list requests for federal dollars. It is now number three after the Beaver Bay to Silver Bay and Two Harbors to Silver Creek sections.

Variances not common

The question of variances on lot sizes for building along the shore was raised. Larson explained that the county board has nothing to do with variances, which are handled through planning and zoning and the board of adjustment (BOA). Matt Huddleston, head of planning and zoning and the county coordinator, said he was not aware of any variances regarding splits being granted in the past three years or more. Non-conforming lots can be sold, but questions about buildability would be handled through a public BOA hearing, and would be subject to all federal and state requirements.

Cell phones and broadband

Besides the safety issues arising from lack of service, Little Marais resident Dave Carlson said existing businesses aren't functioning at the level they could and new businesses aren't locating in the area.

With the small local customer base, Clifford said it was important to get the word out to tourists and seasonal residents to contact the companies and complain, too. The tower in Little Marais is not yet functional because the company needs to hook up a land line to the site. A tower has already been approved for Blueberry Hill Road and two are planned for Isabella and on the Fernberg Road.

Clifford said that when companies merge, there is often a year lag time before building while they take into account all their tower sites and do signal propagation studies. Quest, for example, needs 250 subscribers within a five-mile area, and a tower has to pick up an additional 50 customers to make it worthwhile, said Larson

Huddleston and Larson said that sites the public might think would make good locations, Palisade Head or the Finland Air Base hill, don't necessarily work. Towers can't point a signal too far out over the lake because of problems with 911 calls bouncing to other states. Having a tower on a high hill too near the users means the signal goes on an angle out above where it is needed.

Once service is offered in an area, regulations require that it be continued. The tower itself is only part of the cost for the companies, the capital investment in electronics can run $500,000 per site. Co-locating on government towers such as the ARMER emergency system can be a problem because of the difficulty in getting long-term agreements with government agencies.

"We're trying to smooth it out," said Clifford, who is on the tower committee.

"If you think the government moves slowly, cell phone companies really do," said Larson.

Property taxes

Property values have stabilized in Lake County, said Larson. The assessor visits each property once every four years and adjusts the valuation if there are any changes. The Board of Equalization hears concerns from property owners and has made reductions when new information is brought to their attention, he said.

"Go to the assessors office, first," said commissioner Lenore Johnson.

Wade Sundin wanted the board to "talk about what you can control--spending."

Two years ago a big jump in property taxes was due in part to $1.3 million spent on repairs to the two arenas. Larson asked what would be the effect of not having kids in rec programs.

The county has also faced a 40 percent increase in employee health care costs, on top of a 29 percent increase the previous year. The county wanted employees to switch to a VEBA plan, a health savings account approach, but most have not yet agreed to the change.

Larson said Lake County will keep itself out of the headlines and not end up like the City of Duluth and St. Louis County. Johnson said the county has no lifelong health care.

Clifford said that the board has been tough on spending to the point were he felt it cost two of them their jobs. (Johnson and Larson were defeated in the primary election.)

"We do have good employees," said Johnson, "but we differ on opinions about money."

Other strains on the county are fuel cost and unfunded federal and state mandates, which carry fines if not adhered to.

With 24-7 patrols by the sheriff's department. Larson had suggested they switch to smaller vehicles with better mileage, but said he was told the roads are so bad they need 4-wheel drive. The highway department has elected not to fill two vacant positions because of fuel costs.

Huddleston said the county has been more aggressive with department budgets with monthly reviews.

Johnson, on the Association of Minnesota Counties executive committee, said they have been lobbying the state to get them to understand "they can't balance the state budget on the back of the county."

An audience member pointed out that the 2000 census had Lake County's population averaging as the oldest in the state, and said that property taxes were a regressive way of paying for county services. About $7 million of the county budget comes from property taxes, and $35 million from state and federal funds.

Bergman, who like Larson is a small business owner, said, "Everybody on the board realizes where everyone else is coming from. "We're walking with our heads down looking for dimes and nickels out on the street, looking for money for government."

Lake County Fair

Ray Churak, who is on the rec board, told the board they would be talking to constituents about Lake County Fair participation. Johnson said that a few families were keeping the fair going, holding weekly work nights in July and August to prepare the buildings and grounds. She felt the change in the fair was due to a wider cultural change.

Diane Carlson, Little Marais, said that cultural events like the Booya and Finn Fest held at the Finland Heritage site continued to be a popular draw--with crafts, music and professional artists--even without a carnival.

"A county board dunk tank would be popular with the employees," said Larson.

At the close of the meeting one audience member said to the commissioners, "We're sorry for so much harassment. Thank you for making our quality of life what it is."

At the regular board meeting the next morning, Larson described the Little Marais session as "government at its best," with the board hearing directly from engaged constituents, "who care about their community for all the right reasons," and having a chance to exchange information.