For the last several years, there has been one constent in the voting history of the Wright County Board of Commissioners.
When it comes to voting on funding for the ongoing Bertram Chain of Lakes parkland acquisition process, the vote would invariably be 3-2, with Commissioners Jack Russek and Dick Mattson voting against funding of such a project during difficult economic times.
With four new commissioners, there has been some question as to whether the new county board would continue the policy of approving continued land purchases. The county and city of Monticello have shared the local match cost for the $20.5 million project. To date, $11 million has been expended on the project $5.9 million coming from grant funding and almost $5.2 million being shared by the county and the city.
The good news for park proponents is that there isn’t any fierce opposition to the project, but, had at least two of the current commissioners been on the board when the process began, it likely wouldn’t have happened.
“If it had been up to me early on in this project, I probably would have been on a ‘2’ side of those 3-2 votes,” Commissioner Charlie Borrell said. “But, just looking at where we’re at – we’re close to the finish line now – I’m going to be leaning toward the side that will continue funding the project because of the investment we’ve already made.”
However, Borrell isn’t in full agreement with the process in which the land is being acquired.
He intends to make one of his first plans of business to find a way to separate the county and the city in their role in the park – designating certain areas to be under the authority of the city and other portions under the control of the county.
“What bothers me a little bit is the tying together of the project with another governmental entity,” Borrell said.
“As soon as possible, I would like to see the project legally split off. Monticello has invested the same money we have, so the city is definitely deserving of having its fair share,” he said. “But, they don’t want to manage the entire park. I’d like to see the park split off so Monticello can have control over its part of the park and the county can have control over its portion. Down the road, I see the structure that we have set up as a potential nightmare. We’re partners. Everything is rosy early on, but it doesn’t always stay that way.”
Commissioner Mike Potter, like Borrell, is in favor of finishing up the project because the purchase process is more than half complete.
But, he also shared Borrell’s thinking that, had he been on the board when the project began, things would have been much different.
“At the beginning of the whole Bertram Lake process, I was not in favor of it because of the cost,” Potter said. “I felt the YMCA dictated price terms, conditions, everything and the county was put into a ‘take it-or-leave it’ situation. I’ve negotiated real estate deals before and it’s like a game of tic-tac-toe – if one side gets something, the other side should get something else. In this case, we were just told what to do and followed in lock step. With that being said, I wasn’t overly thrilled. I grilled Commissioner (Elmer) Eichelberg over it several times on the cost. The more information I got and learned about the grant process, my attitude changed toward it because I want to finish it out and get it done.”
The county has been extremely successful in getting grant funding from various sources, which has cut down the county’s contribution considerably.
Commissioner Mark Daleiden believes that the grant funding has made the project much more palatable. “From my understanding of what I’ve learned, it hasn’t cost the county a whole lot of money all things considered,” Daleiden said.
“So far, more than $11 million has been spent on the project and the county’s contribution has been about $2.5 million. When you look at trying to get the most bang for your buck, when you consider the multiple uses for the facility and the value of the price we’ve had to pay, it’s been a pretty good deal for the county, so I’m in favor of continuing the process as long as we can keep getting grant money to offset the county’s investment,” he said.
The only commissioner who appears to be non-committal at this point is Husom.
She said she has followed the process and has spoken with Parks Administrator Marc Mattice about the scope of the project, but hasn’t made up her mind as to whether she will be in favor of continued funding for the project or not.
“I’m pretty neutral on the subject right now, because I don’t have enough concrete information to base an opinion on yet,” Husom said. “I’m coming into this with an open mind and I know that there is probably enough support to continue the purchases because it’s a beautiful piece of property that you don’t find so close to a large metro area. I’m going to weigh the costs to the benefits of having the program and make up my mind from there. At this point, I’m listening to the arguments for and against the project and still come into it with an open mind.”
Whether the funding mechanism for the project continues at the same rate or not, it would appear – in the short-term, anyway – that the days of the 3-2 vote on the Bertram Chain of Lakes Regional Park project are over and that the county board will have a more unified front on future land acquisition.
That could all change down the line, but, for the time being, it would appear to be all systems go on the remaining land purchases needed to complete the project.
Freelancer John Holler covers government and the Wright County Board of Commissioners.