Wright County Board asked to turn over River Rider money to WCAT

By John Holler

For the last couple of years, Wright County has wrestled with the issue of dealing with public transportation.

The county had run an efficient, cost-effective, low-key transit system with Sherburne County (River Rider), but when Sherburne County bailed on the project to join up with Stearns and Benton, Wright County was left hanging without a state-approved transit system.

Over the last year-plus, the debate has been ramped up and at a pair of meetings May 3 – one in Wright County and one in McLeod County – the water got muddier.

When the Wright County Board and the Trailblazer transit organization in McLeod County couldn’t come to a funding agreement to have Wright County join McLeod and Sibley counties, several cities in Wright County stepped in to form Wright County Area Transit (WCAT) and began working directly with Trailblazer.

At the May 3 meeting, Kelly Hinnenkamp, city administrator of Annandale and treasurer for WCAT, asked the board to consider turning over the approximately $250,000 remaining in the River Rider account to WCAT, which elicited a strong reaction from Board Chair Charlie Borrell.

I’m not sure where this is going,” Borrell said. “I think maybe we should just wait, because WCAT put in a letter to pull away from Trailblazer. If that’s the case, where is this going to go? Is Trailblazer going to take over the transit and (WCAT) will just cease to exist? Maybe we should just wait and see where this is all going.

“What I don’t want to happen is for this to be used for operating costs and when that money is used up, you come back to the county saying we need more money,” Borrell added. “The county is not involved in this. I have no problem giving the money out if it’s to buy some buses – to do something as a one-time capital improvement – but, if the county is going to be giving out money, then the county will run transit. I think we made that real clear a long time back.”

Hinnenkamp said the letter giving the intent of pulling out of Trailblazer in December was due to the structure of the joint powers board that gave McLeod County more votes than Sibley or Wright, but added that Trailblazer had shown a willingness to change the structure and give Wright County an equitable voting share on the board, although 50 miles away in Glencoe, the McLeod County Board was changing the landscape. But, the key for her is to maintain a transit system in Wright County.

“We’re going to have transit in Wright County,” Hinnenkamp said. “That’s why all of these cities stepped up when River Rider was dissolving. Our constituents – and your constituents – want to have transit in Wright County. Our goal in pulling away was not to just give it Trailblazer. It was to consider other partners, other options, if stand-alone was an option – what options do we have?”

Borrell countered that the cities are in the position they in because the county board refused to sign off on a deal he deemed unfair and not in Wright County’s best interests – short-term or long-term.

“This board was negotiating with Trailblazer and they wanted to do business with the county,” Borrell said. “Commissioner (Pat) Sawatzke and I said to this board that this is a bad deal. They’re not giving the representation to Wright County that we deserve. It will be the tail wagging the dog. I don’t know how many analogies that we brought up, saying it was not a good partnership.

“The cities did an end-around around the county,” Borrell added. “We were at a deadlock with them negotiating and you all said ‘we’ll take it over.’ You did an end-around around the county. Make no mistake about it. Commissioner [Mike] Potter went down and met with transit people down there (and negotiated) that, if you can’t work something out, you will be able to have your own transit. But, by that point, the cities were already working with Trailblazer, worked a deal out and did an end-around around the county. It didn’t serve the county at all. This wasn’t a good deal that you made.”

Hinnenkamp countered that it was the potential for losing transit for those who need it most that was the impetus for WCAT’s involvement, despite current misgivings.

“I’m not going to dispute how all that happened with the county and the cities,” Hinnenkamp said. “There was a lot of concern that transit was going to be going away if Wright County was unable to figure that out. That might not have happened, but that was the concern and that’s why the cities stepped up. I can tell you the majority of cities would love it if the county wanted to take it all back.”

Borrell mentioned that the reason River Rider closed down with a fund balance because it was run efficiently and conservatively, which is why it made approximately $100,000 a year.

Commissioner Darek Vetsch asked if the county has the legal authority to distribute that money to a regional transit corporation like Trailblazer.

Assistant County Attorney Brian Aselson responded that the letter sent to the board by WCAT doesn’t specifically ask for the money to be transferred over, but rather to have a meeting to discuss the matter and that the Minnesota Department of Transportation should be involved in the discussion.

There has been confusion as to whether the $250,000 in the fund belongs to Trailblazer, WCAT, MnDOT or Wright County is a question that needs answering, but Commissioner Mike Potter was clear that it doesn’t belong to MnDOT.

“The fact that River Rider was a completely separate entity from Trailblazer, there is no merging, there is no folding, there is nothing there,” Potter said. “The fact that the residual money came to Wright County in the first place told me that MnDOT did not have legal authority to keep that money because, if they did, they would have grabbed it. I would have bet the farm on that one.”

Taking a cue from Asleson, the board approved allowing WCAT to set the date to meet with the county board, whether the full board or a smaller committee between the two sides before meeting with MnDOT, so both the county and WCAT are on the same page.

However, it doesn’t appear as things are getting clearer, since at its own meeting May 3, the McLeod County Board denied the WCAT request to modify the joint powers agreement, sending the entire issue into a deeper malaise than there was before because the concerns expressed by WCAT when it threatened to pull out of its Trailblazer contract not only haven’t been addressed, they’ve been discussed and denied.

The board moved to set up a meeting, with Borrell abstaining because he felt the motion was immaterial to the process. With so much current uncertainty, the only thing that does seem clear is that this story is fluid and far from being over.