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McLeod and Meeker counties fight aquatic invasion

Local lakes and lakegoers are under attack — from non-native aquatic invasive species. Once infested with species such as zebra mussels or Eurasian watermilfoil, it’s difficult or even impossible to eradicate the threat to the lake.

"By the time it's identified it's too late," said McLeod County director of environmental services Marc Telecky. 

According to a 2019 infested waters list published by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, two McLeod County lakes — Belle and Cedar lakes — are listed as infested with Eurasian watermilfoil, an invasive plant that can grow up to 20 feet, creating a canopy and dense mats at the water’s surface that inhibits water enthusiasts. It can also overtake habitat and native aquatic plants, possibly lowering diversity.

Zebra mussels attach to hard surfaces under water and can encrust equipment such as boat motors and hulls. Swimmers and pets can cut their feet on zebra mussels attached to rocks, docks, swim rafts and ladders among other environmental and habitat threats.

In Meeker County, nine lakes are listed as infested:

  • Clear Lake, Eurasian watermilfoil 
  • Erie Lake, Eurasian watermilfoil 
  • Little Mud Lake, Eurasian watermilfoil 
  • Manuella Lake, Eurasian watermilfoil 
  • Lake Minnie Belle, Eurasian watermilfoil
  • Lake Ripley, Eurasian watermilfoil 
  • Lake Stella, zebra mussels and Eurasian watermilfoil 
  • Lake Washington, zebra mussels and Eurasian watermilfoil 
  • Wolf Lake, Eurasian watermilfoil

The good news is steps are being taken to stop the spread of AIS. Meeker County has been aggressive in its response, including the hiring in June of Ariana Richardson, the county’s new AIS coordinator.

Meeker County lake property owners, lake associations, local units of government, DNR technical assistance and DNR financial assistance work together in controlling the spread of AIS, according to Wendy Crowell, AIS management consultant for DNR.

One of the biggest ways AIS spread to other lakes is by hitching rides on watercraft and equipment anglers, boaters and others use. So inspection has been a major component in the war on AIS.

“Part of the effectiveness and us managing the spread has been the inspection program,” Richardson said. “We have a very thorough inspection program and a group of inspectors. The goal with most counties is to really help facilitate the management of public waters, so through the AIS program … my role is … somebody that can help facilitate the grant process and oversee the management and lake profiles.”

The same can be said in McLeod County, albeit on a smaller scale. Telecky says the department is in contact with local lake associations but does not conduct inspections such as Meeker County. McLeod County does receive funds from the state, which are distributed to local associations to educate property owners.

"The money's available for lake associations to contact us, and if they have a program they can apply for a grant," Telecky said. "To take that a step further, we are in the process this fall and winter of looking at the process more in depth. We'll see if there's more that we can do."

The other way AIS spreads is via water movement from one waterbody to another during their free-floating, tiny life stage, according to Crowell. Telecky agreed.

"I think, personally, that a lot of the transfer has to do with water flow more so than a trailer at a boat launch," he said.

Starry stonewort, bushy and bright green macro-algae with a star-shaped bulbil, is another invasive species that is a concern for local lakes. It recently appeared in Lake Koronis, which poses a threat to central Minnesota lakes due to its proximity.

“Educating boaters in proper decontamination of their boats is the main way to reduce the risk of AIS," said Kristin Jaquith, a member of the Lake Minnie Belle Improvement Association. "Starry stonewort, for instance, can be spread by just one tiny section of the weed entering the lake.”

Along with making waters less appealing for recreation, AIS can also be a detriment to fisheries and lake ecology.

“Our native fisheries … our fishing population in the lakes, the fish that people eat and do for sports, they’re at risk," Richardson said. "Serious risk, at the point that there’s AIS in a lake. So you’re looking at decreased numbers, decreased health … I would say, you would see that mostly impacted by zebra mussels. They really mess with the water column and all of the (foundations) of that food chain, and so you’ll see the cascading effects with time and as the population grows.”

Currently there are no lakes in McLeod County that are infested with zebra mussels, but Telecky reiterated that once they're discovered, it's too late.

Minnesota law requires anglers and boaters to clean visible aquatic plants, mud and debris off their boats, trailers and other water-related equipment before leaving a water access or shoreland property. They also must drain water-related equipment, boats, ballast tanks, portable bait containers, motors, and drain bilges, livewells and baitwells by removing drain plugs before leaving water access. Lastly, they must dispose of unwanted bait such as minnows, leeches, worms and fish parts in the trash.

Some invasive species are small and difficult to see. To remove or kill them, it is recommended to spray boats and other water craft with high-pressure water, rinse with hot water of about 120 degrees for at least two minutes or 140 degrees for at least 10 seconds, and dry for at least five days before moving to another water body.

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McLeod County approves new sales tax for road repairs

McLeod County's wheelage tax is gone, and starting Jan. 1 it will be replaced with a half-percent sales tax on nonessential items.

The wheelage tax kicked in at the beginning of 2014 in response to an option allowed by the state to cover growing transportation expenses. It was collected when county residents registered their vehicles each year and garnered $385,000 annually to assist with road maintenance. The wheelage tax was repealed last month by County Board members.

The sales tax approved unanimously Tuesday will cost consumers 50 cents on a $100 purchase. It will not apply to food, clothing, agriculture production items and essential items. A University of Minnesota Extension study predicts it will raise $1.9 million annually, moving the county closer to closing a $3 million annual funding gap from the state aid system to help maintain highways. The gap is larger when county roads are taken into account. 

In a presentation, McLeod County Public Works director John Brunkhorst said the county has more than 150 miles of substandard paved roads. The cost to tackle those projects, including addressing narrow shoulders and steep inslopes, would be $225 million. That figure does not include 100 miles of gravel roads.

"We're trying to find realistic solutions to a very difficult problem of keeping our roads up to par so their safety ... is where it needs to be," said Board Member Rich Pohlmeier.

A few roads in need of reconstruction, and the cost of the work, includes:

  • County State Aid Highway 16 from State Highway 7 to Wright County ($9 million)
  • County State Aid Highway 10 from County State Aid Highway 2 to Carver County ($11 million)
  • County State Aid Highway 5 from County State Aid Highway 16 to County State Aid Highway 1 ($13 million)
  • County Road 57 from County State Aid Highway 17 to U.S. Highway 212 ($7 million)
  • County Road 61 from County Road 79 to County Road 60 ($7 million)
  • County Road 81 from Sibley County to U.S. Highway 212 ($5 million)

"With only a few miles of road it goes from hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions to make a difference," said Board Member Paul Wright. "That's the way it goes with today's values and prices."

Maintenance and repair adds additional costs.

Board Member Doug Krueger says he favors the sales tax over the wheelage tax, as it spreads the burden out to everyone who benefits from the commerce the roads bring into the county, and doesn't add a larger burden for families whose work or needs may require they own multiple vehicles. A University of Minnesota Extension study based on consumer trends noted visitors to the county would likely account for a third of the revenue generated by the sales tax.

State statute caps the sales tax at 0.5 percent, and allows local control of the money garnered. The law does not allow counties to add any additional taxes for other expenses.

Two county residents spoke against the sales tax.

"Business owners, whether small business or agriculture, are going to pay an awful lot of this," said Steve Reiner of rural Hutchinson. "I think there have been an awful lot of wants taken care of. I think maybe we need to narrow back to the needs. I don't disagree that we need to improve a lot of roads, but I think we need to look at all projects ... a little bit closer."

He noted that taxes were adding up with local schools looking to update aging facilities and renew operating levies. 

Building materials will account for the largest portion of taxable retail and service sales, at 22 percent, according to the University of Minnesota Extension study. General merchandise stores such as department stores, superstores, dollar stores and variety stores will account for 18.9 percent of taxable retail sales, followed by 13.2 percent from restaurants, bars and similar services.

Before the vote, Krueger said 10 years ago he would have had to pinch himself if he thought about counties working on economic development.

"But there is a need," he said. "When I talk to people (and ask), 'Why aren't you building your home in McLeod County?" they want better roads. You talk to the townships, they cannot afford to build a road. They want them built to county standards because of safety ... (but) the costs are so high."

He said the price of bad roads blows back on farmers who have to pay the high cost of repairing heavy vehicles. Earlier in the meeting, he noted that in years past the county's needs had been kicked down the road, leaving the Board to catch up now.

"It's not easy to do this, but I don't know how to keep up," Krueger said. "The wants and needs were commented on. Believe me, I tear myself up on wants and needs."

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McLeod County sets 8.9 percent preliminary levy increase

McLeod County’s preliminary levy increase was set at 8.9 percent Tuesday, lower than another projected option of 15.99 percent.

The decision ties into a move to change from a wheelage tax to a 0.5 percent sales tax, which is covered in another A1 story.

The preliminary 8.9 percent increase would bring the levy to $24.62 million if approved in December. The final levy can be reduced from the preliminary levy, but not increased. Colleen Robeck, a county accountant, said the taxes on a $100,000 home would increase by $15 on the county’s portion, assuming the home’s value didn’t change. She noted no change to a home’s value is unlikely.

Compensation and benefits for the county’s roughly 300 employees are cited as one of the main factors for the increase, as has been the case in past years.

Robeck said personnel costs for 2020 are expected to increase by $1.5 million. The figure accounts for compensation and benefits, high insurance claims, workers’ compensation and growing staff needs.

In addition to a desire to offer competitive wages, County Board members have cited the burden of meeting state mandates and the responsibility of county services to handle a myriad of problems stemming from drug and alcohol abuse as reasons for growing personnel costs.

A $216,051 portion of expenses for the renovation of the former Jungclaus building into the Government Center is expected to be paid for with a one-time 1 percent levy increase, which is accounted for in the whole.

The rejected 15.99 percent levy increase of $3.61 million was largely to keep up with the growing need for county road construction. Reconstruction alone — not including maintenance and preservation — calls for $7 million per year to keep up. But the recently approved sales tax is meant to help address that issue.

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$10 million bond plan includes money for roads

A $10 million, 20-year bond proposal was approved in a 4-1 vote by the McLeod County Board Tuesday.

The bond, which is an $8 million bump from a previous proposal, ties to a 0.5 percent sales tax covered in an A1 story.

The County Board previously approved a $2 million bond to help fund the remodel of the upcoming McLeod County Government Center in the former Jungclaus building in Glencoe.

The project’s total cost is projected at $12 million when accounting for renovations and the purchase of the building and nearby properties. The County Board previously intended to cover $2 million of the $9 million renovation cost with its fund balances but has reconsidered doing so out of a desire to keep its fund balances at a healthy level. That led to the proposal to add $2 million more to the bond and bring it to $4 million.

Another $6 million bond would be used for highway projects. That portion of the bond would be paid back by the recently approved sales tax. By combining the various bonding proposals, the county hopes it can find a better rate.

Board Chair Joe Nagel cast the one dissenting vote, saying that he would rather only bond $2 million in order to safeguard county reserves.