Wright County Board recommends that WCAT pulls out of Trailblazer transit

Ever since Sherburne County announced it was opting out of the River Rider program four years ago, there have been plenty of questions about how Wright County would address the issue of transit within its borders. While a relatively small-scale operation, River Rider was an effective program that met the needs of its ridership – primarily those with handicaps or the elderly who no longer drove.

The result was that Wright County got clumped in with Trailblazer, a regional transit system that operates in Sibley, Meeker and Wright counties. When the Wright County Board of Commissioners could not reach an agreement with Trailblazer that the board felt was fair to Wright County, the matter was dropped and the ball was picked up by cities within the county that formed WCAT (Wright County Area Transportation)

At the June 18 meeting of the Wright County Board, the topic once again came up, as WCAT was asking the county to provide $77,000 in the local-share funding – coming from the approximately $256,000 that was in the River Rider fund when its doors closed for good – funds that can only be used for transit purposes. The commissioners were brought back into the discussion at the July 11 committee of the whole meeting and their dissatisfaction with Trailblazer again came to the forefront.

“All of us at some point or another have expressed our concerns about Trailblazer and WCAT not being a good match,” Potter said. “The problems were foreseeable and predictable in this marriage per se. It took a while and it’s not getting better. The fear is that, even with some minor changes, it’s still not going to get any better. It’s still going to be the same problems – it’s going to be lying in the weeds for a couple of years and come back at us again.”

For many of the same reasons the county board balked at the contract presented to them by Trailblazer two years ago – which some commissioners felt was an unfair “take it-or-leave it” proposal – the county is urging WCAT to pull itself out of Trailblazer and keep Wright County transit within its own borders rather than helping fund a regional program in another county in which Wright County is merely a member without much say in what happens.

“Our preference would be to have the county be a stand-alone transit system,” Potter said. “I believe that Wright County is large enough to handle this function – the local control, the rides, the amount of increase in ridership would show that we are serious about having transit in the county and doing it well.”

As it pertained to the request for $77,000, Potter said that the county is willing to be a player in the game, but that the money remaining in the River Rider account would best be used as startup money for the county’s solo transit project, not to help fund Trailblazer’s operations. As such, the board recommended that WCAT consider a stand-alone program and that the county would contribute $50,000 to WCAT, not the full amount requested.

“Of course they’d like to get all of this money, but we have to be judicious with it,” Potter said. “There was discussion on the $77,000 bill and some of that was that WCAT should have some skin in the game because they knew what was coming at them.”

The board nominated Commissioners Potter and Darek Vetsch to represented the county at future meetings with WCAT to discuss long-term solutions to transit issues.

In other items on the July 18 agenda, the board:

• Received an update from Auditor/Treasurer Bob Hiivala about the plans for the closure of the county’s license bureau from Thursday, July 20 to Monday, July 24. Hiivala said that there are anticipated issues throughout the state while the Minnesota Licensing and Registration System software is updated, but Commissioner Potter said that most people have been made aware of the change and have adjusted their schedules accordingly to either get tabs/licenses/plates before July 20 or after July 24. Hiivala said that the office is expected to be open for business as usual starting Tuesday, July 25.

• Approved the June revenue/expenditure guidelines. Through half the budget year, the county’s expenditures are below the budgeted amounts and revenues are higher than projected, thanks in large part to money being brought in by the boarding of prisoners at a higher-than-budgeted rate.

• Authorized signatures on a petition to request the creation of a lake improvement district for Maple Lake. Commissioner Darek Vetsch said there seems to be a strong level of support for the creation of the Maple Lake LID.

• Set a committee of the whole meeting to discuss automation at 10:30 a.m. following the Aug. 8 board meeting.

• Referred to the July 26 technology committee discussion of technology capital improvement project requests, the status of the Office 365 program and a project portfolio of goals the IT department is looking to accomplish in the short-term and long-term.

• Approved a claim in the amount of $1,197 to the firm of Madden, Galanter & Hansen for union negotiation work done on behalf of the county in June.

• Referred to the July 26 personnel committee discussion of the hiring of a developer position and a proposal to have a lateral hire of a deputy above a 12 percent pay increase.

• Approved developing a job description for a new position at the county’s compost facility. The position was assist the existing compost manager during the busier months of the year at the facility, typically from April until November.

• Set a committee of the whole meeting to discuss the results of an organizational design study from InfoTech for 11 a.m. Thursday, July 24.

• Authorized board attendance at the Greater MSP Deeper Dive conference Wednesday, Aug. 2, in Golden Valley.

Freelancer John Holler covers government and the Wright County Board of Commissioners.