Crow Wing County to Unlock Land Services Building Doors

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

Commissioner Bill Brekken brought forward the motion to reopen the building, citing the approach of the property tax deadline and the desire to make services in the building more accessible. Commissioner Rosemary Franzen seconded the motion and it was carried 4-0 with President Steve Barrows absent.

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

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

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As for opening more buildings on the county campus, county administrator Tim Houle said the vaccination rate among county employees is an “important step” in the enlargement review. 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 entire meeting. The subject was first addressed this month by Commissioner Paul Koering, who at the March 9 meeting said he was ready to take steps to reopen to the public beyond virtual services and on appointment.

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

Franzen said she heard from confused voters as to why the county buildings were still closed when it appeared most places were open again. This, added to the frustration with simple transactions, such as handing over a check, requiring a long appointment with land staff, was behind his own desire for change.

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

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

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 office hours.  Intercoms are also used at the freeway service and at the county jail.  Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

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 office hours. Intercoms are also used at the freeway service and at the county jail. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Community Services Director Kara Terry told the board she was concerned about unlocking the doors right now while her staff organize vaccination clinics for targeted populations.

“It got pretty difficult pretty quickly trying to have someone sit in the hall and allow access to the immunization clinic and then also for appointments,” Terry said at the committee meeting. . “So we try not to schedule so many appointments on immunization clinic days to alleviate some of this confusion. But we certainly have public access. People come to the door, we don’t refuse anyone. … We would appreciate it if the way we provide service today continues.

Regarding county board meetings, Houle said it becomes complicated to limit the number of participants due to capacity restrictions. He said that while the county has the power to respond to the way people behave in their buildings – such as not wearing masks or maintaining adequate social distancing – restrict access to a certain number of people in the meeting room could cause problems.

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

Houle explained to the board of directors how towns in the county manage public access as well as surrounding counties. In the towns of Brainerd and Pequot Lakes, city councils meet in person, but public participation is only virtual. In Baxter, the city council continues to meet virtually. Both Nisswa and Crosby’s meetings are open to the public in person, but Crosby Town 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 he “held his breath” at every board meeting, unsure whether large numbers might attend. A few planning and zoning meetings in Aitkin County also made some staff nervous, he said, as a significant number of people showed up.

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Commissioner Doug Houge stressed that schools limit the number of fans attending sporting events and questioned why this cannot be applied to the county conference hall as well. Franzen said the television in the hallway outside the conference hall would allow people to watch the meeting and remain socially distanced if the hall was filled within the capacity limits currently required by the executive order.

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

Houle noted that the meetings of the Planning Commission and the Adjustment Council take place in the evenings after hours, and that it would be difficult to control capacity limitations and other COVID-19 security protocols in this. situation. He said a recent hearing drew 35 attendees in the virtual format and it would be difficult to accommodate such a group in person at this time.

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

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

“Our meetings will remain as they are, for all the different committees, for the time being. We’ll probably get to that 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 twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.

Gregory M. Roy