Wednesday, June 18, 2014 | NEWS
Sex offender to be released
County looking at cost to taxpayers of more than $350,000
Jean Koelz|Staff writer
BURNETT COUNTY - Last fall, emergency management director Rhonda Reynolds called it “a glitch.” Later, county board Chairman Donald Taylor called it “a hiccup,” and didn’t expect significant delays.
On Oct. 2, 2013, members of the St. Croix Tribe’s Environmental and Natural Resources Department turned away workers sent to prepare sites in Danbury and Hertel for installation of equipment that is part of the county’s $4.5 million public safety communications system. Despite the county’s best efforts, the matter remains unresolved.
Back in 1995, the FCC issued an order to gradually switch all private and land-mobile licenses operating at 25 kHz to 12.5 kHz by Jan. 1, 2013. This “narrowbanding” affects a variety of radio users, but primarily police agencies, fire departments, ambulance services, utilities, airlines and taxicab companies. The county has been working with a consultant for years to design and implement an upgraded system involving nine towers and an updated call center. After all the sites were secured, the county hired Racom Corp. to build and install the system. Because of the interaction between towers, there are a few towers that are key to the system in order to achieve near total coverage of the county. The Hertel water tower is one key location.
The county has worked to resolve various problems with a majority of the sites in the system. Because of the delays, the county had already received a deadline extension until Jan. 1, 2014. As a contingency plan, Reynolds applied for and received another extension. This final deadline extension expires this September. The potential fine for noncompliance is $16,000 per day and possible revocation of the license altogether.
Now, despite promises from tribal leadership to “work diligently to make this happen,” it’s been over eight months and the tribe is still withholding approval to proceed at Hertel.
Tribe raises issues
Last fall, the tribe raised a number of issues regarding compensation, ownership and access to the property. The objections were unexpected, as agreements were signed in 2011 and are valid for at least 10 years from the Nov. 14 signature date. According to the memorandum of understanding, signed by Taylor and Tribal Council Chair Stuart Bearheart, it is clear that the county was authorized to install and perform maintenance on equipment. However, the agreement also mandates that all visits were to be coordinated through the tribe’s Environmental Protection Agency, and it is not clear whether the department was properly notified.
The tribe’s environmental/natural resources director Katie Stariha confirmed the existence of a signed agreement, but she pointed out that it states that the county needed to work through her department to coordinate the project. Stariha said the agreement doesn’t actually define the project, and she would’ve expected to see engineering specs, architectural plans and time lines.
“The water tower was built with grants and loans from the USDA,” Stariha explained tothe Leader last year. “The appropriate thing to do is talk to the USDA engineers and get their approval.” A number of legal issues, including access and easements, also needed to be resolved.
At the time, Marshall Hill, head of Danbury’s joint water commission, agreed. Hill leads a six-person entity that includes representation from the St. Croix Tribe that oversees water service to both the Danbury district and the tribal reservation. Although the Danbury tower is not owned by the tribe, the two organizations shared similar issues with the county’s communications project because both towers were funded and overseen by the USDA.
Because the county has complied with every request for information, the joint water commission in Danbury gave the county a green light to proceed. However, because it’s not cost-effective to hire crews to work on one site at a time, the county is anxiously awaiting the tribe’s nod to move ahead with the Hertel location so both sites can be completed by the deadline.
Approximately two weeks ago, the county engaged in a two-pronged approach. Reynolds reached out to Tribal Police Chief Frank Taylor, who agreed that the communications system is a public safety matter that affects the entire community. As a candidate for Burnett County sheriff, it’s a good opportunity to demonstrate his ability to coordinate cooperation between the tribe and other local officials.
“I spoke to (Reynolds) last week at a meeting,” Taylor confirmed, “and I offered to get involved if she needed me to.” Taylor hasn’t yet talked to decision-makers, but he suggested that if the county wanted to see some progress, face-to-face meetings at the tribal center are the best course. “You can’t always get everyone together at the same time because of meeting schedules,” Taylor said. Indicating that tribal leadership valued an open-door policy, Taylor suggested, “Just give a call and come on out.”
Letter to counsel
On another front, county Administrator Nathan Ehalt sent correspondence to the tribe’s general counsel, Eric Lochen. “Faced with considerable pressure to meet a federal deadline,” Ehalt wrote, trying to communicate a sense of urgency, the memo went on to document the county’s compliance with the tribe’s requests. Ehalt included copies of the original signed agreement and a copy of a second structural analysis the county was forced to pay $2,000 for because the tribe wanted their own engineering firm to conduct the study. Citing the approaching deadline, Ehalt requested that the tribe either honor the 2011 agreement or state an intention not to honor it by June 11. Although Lochen emailed back on June 10 that he was working on a new agreement, there’s been no communication in the last week and no response to Ehalt’s follow-up email. Lochen, an attorney in private practice in Minneapolis, did not respond to a message left by the Leader prior to press time.
Ehalt expressed a strong desire to work cooperatively with tribal leaders and doesn’t understand why it’s been difficult to establish productive communications. “I feel like we’ve done everything we can,” Ehalt said. “I don’t know what else to do except look for alternatives.” As a rough estimate, Ehalt said that if the county has to build a new tower as a substitute for the Hertel location it could cost an additional $350,000 to $500,000. “That falls way outside what I consider to be acceptable overage parameters,” Ehalt said.
Taylor’s suggestion to visit the tribal center in person surprised and encouraged Ehalt. “Well,” he remarked, “I know where we’re going next week!”