Crow Wing County to Open Doors to Land Services Building – Brainerd Dispatch

Beginning Monday, March 29, the Crow Wing County Land Services Building will reopen to the general public after more than four months of virtual and appointment-only services.

Crow Wing County Council made the unanimous decision on Tuesday March 23 to remove restrictions on public access to the building, put in place amid the November spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the county and the state.

Commissioner Bill Brekken introduced the motion to reopen the building, citing the approaching property tax deadline and the desire to make services in the building more accessible. Commissioner Rosemary Franzen seconded the motion and it passed 4-0, with Chair Steve Barrows absent.

The Land Services Building serves as the main customer service desk for a variety of issues, including environmental permits, water planning and forest management, property assessment and taxes, registration of documents, land sales and vital registers. Those who choose to do business with the county in person will still need to adhere to other COVID-19 safety protocols, including wearing masks and social distancing.

A sign taped to the front entrance of the historic Crow Wing County Courthouse notifies people of current public access restrictions on Tuesday, March 23, 2021. Chelsey Perkins/Brainerd Dispatch

As for the opening of other buildings on the county campus, county administrator Tim Houle said the vaccination rate among county employees is an “important milestone” in the review of the expansion. of public access. As of March 16, Houle said 20 to 25 percent of county employees were at least partially vaccinated.

While there was little discussion at Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners discussed at length the considerations and complexities of reopening the buildings to the public during the March 16 committee of the whole. The subject was first broached this month by Commissioner Paul Koering who, at the March 9 meeting, said he was ready to act on reopening to the public beyond virtual and appointment-based services. you.

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“I know we’re not closed, we’re open by appointment only, but that’s not the same as someone walking in. And it’s not going to be long and the property tax bills are going go out and people – lots of people – want to come in immediately and pay for that and they would like to get a receipt,” Koering said while attending the March 9 board meeting virtually from Florida.

Franzen said she heard from voters confused about why county buildings were still closed when it looked like most places were open again. This, coupled with the frustration of simple transactions, such as handing over a check, requiring a lengthy appointment with land services staff, was what sparked his own desire for change.

At the March 16 meeting, Koering said he would like county council meetings to be open to the public as well, while Franzen advocated for the reopening of land and community services buildings – both of which are experiencing the highest traffic of those in need of county benefits.

“Let’s get these buildings unlocked so people don’t think we’re not working,” Franzen said.

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An intercom at the main entrance to the historic Crow Wing County Courthouse on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, allows people to connect with a county employee if the doors are locked during business hours. Intercoms are also in use at the highway department and the county jail. Chelsey Perkins/Brainerd Dispatch

Community Services Director Kara Terry told the council she was worried about unlocking the doors at this time while her staff held vaccination clinics for targeted populations.

“It got pretty difficult pretty quickly trying to get someone sitting in the lobby and allowing access to the vaccination clinic and then also for appointments,” Terry said during the meeting. of the committee. “So we try not to schedule so many appointments on vaccination clinic days to alleviate some of that confusion. But we certainly have public access. People come to the door, we don’t turn anyone away. … We would appreciate the continuation of the way we provide service today.

When it comes to county council meetings, Houle said it gets complicated when people limit attendance due to capacity restrictions. He said that while the county has the authority to respond to people’s behavior in their buildings — such as not wearing masks or failing to observe proper social distancing — to limit access to a certain number of people in the hall. meeting could cause problems.

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“I don’t think you’d be able to refuse anyone. If you allow people in, you risk that the reason you don’t let them in is because of the content of what they want to tell you,” Houle said.

Houle told the council how towns in the county handle public access as well as surrounding counties. In the towns of Brainerd and Pequot Lakes, city councils meet in person, but public participation is virtual only. In Baxter, City Council continues to meet virtually. Both the Nisswa and Crosby meetings are open to in-person public participation, but Crosby’s municipal offices are closed to the public.

The county councils of Aitkin, Morrison and Cass allow public participation in in-person meetings, although they encourage virtual participation. According to Houle, Cass County staff said they “hold their breath” at every board meeting, unsure if large numbers might attend. A few planning and zoning meetings in Aitkin County also made some staff nervous, he said, because a large number of people showed up.

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Commissioner Doug Houge pointed out that schools were limiting the number of fans attending sporting events and wondered why that couldn’t apply to the county boardroom as well. Franzen said the television in the vestibule outside the meeting room would allow people to watch the meeting and stay socially distant if the room was filled to the capacity limits currently required by the executive order.

“If someone actually wants to talk, I think they would be allowed in and someone else would be let out,” Franzen said. “There are ways to solve this problem.”

Houle noted that meetings of the Planning Commission and the Adjustment Board take place in the evening after normal working hours, and it would be difficult to control capacity limitations and other COVID-19 safety protocols. in this situation. He said a recent audience attracted 35 attendees in the virtual format and hosting such a group in person at this time would be difficult.

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“How do you control these entry points? said Barrows. “If you leave the doors open, there is no control and the numbers can go up. And I’m just playing devil’s advocate here, because I think that’s a real possibility.

At the end of the conversation at the March 16 committee meeting, all commissioners seemed to agree on reopening land services to the public, but differed on how to approach reopening other areas. The board agreed to continue the conversation and make changes in the future, as appropriate.

“Our meetings will remain as they are, for all the different commissions, for the time being. We will probably come back to them in 24 hours,” Barrows said with a wry nod to the ever-changing guidelines of pandemic life.

CHELSEY PERKINS can be reached at 218-855-5874 or [email protected] Follow on Twitter at

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Gregory M. Roy