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Unorganized territory roads to be plowed sooner

The First Assessment District of Crow Wing County, an unorganized territory, extends north from Woida Road to the Cinosam Road area and west from the Crow Wing/Cass county line to Merrifield.

Residents on township roads in the unorganized territories of Crow Wing County will see snow plows sooner after storms this winter than in past years if a proposal by the highway department works out as planned.

The Crow Wing County Board on Tuesday approved the department's request to seek sealed bids for contracting out township road maintenance services in the First Assessment District (FAD) and Second Assessment District (SAD). The department would continue to maintain all county roads within the districts.

In a presentation to the board, County Engineer Tim Bray said by contracting out the services, the county could increase the level of service to all residents in the county and potentially reduce costs by decreasing staff and equipment.

Bray focused on the FAD, which with a population of 5,500 residents is the third largest population center in the county, behind Brainerd and Baxter. FAD includes the area north of Brainerd and Baxter, stretching from Woida Road north to Cinosam Road and east from the Crow Wing/Cass county line to Merrifield. SAD, previously Dean Lake Township, has about 100 residents and is located between Emily and Crosby.

The county is currently responsible for year-round maintenance of 58 miles of asphalt and gravel roadways in the territories, which include numerous dead-ends, nearly 50 cul-de-sacs and unaccepted roads that require annual maintenance. Bray said there will be more roads in the future in the FAD that would come under the county's responsibility as well.

"We've accepted roads recently in that area, and so far, our liability with regard to snow plowing continues to grow," Bray said. "Because this has traditionally been the highest developing area, there's no end in sight."

The services that will be contracted with the proposal include snow plowing, which Bray focused much of his presentation on, but also patching, gravel road grading, mowing and vegetation control, shoulder repair, sweeping and one-time maintenance.

Bray said the level of service for plowing on these roads, which are included in four different county plow routes, is lower than residents' expectations.

"Because oftentimes they see the Crow Wing County plow there with our sign on the side, many feel they are on county roads and expect a level of service on a county road," he said. "We want to be able to deliver on those expectations as much as possible, however it's a balancing act. I have a finite amount of staff, and I have to balance these 50 miles with the nearly 500 other (miles) that I have in the county."

The department sets three priority levels for plowing depending on the average daily travel of a road and other factors, including if it's an intercounty connection. All FAD and SAD roads fall within Priority 3, which requires a single pass each lane within 18 hours of a snow storm.

Bray said that executing this plan creates the potential for snow plowing on affected roads to commence six to 12 hours sooner than in the past.

"They might be able to see a plow much sooner than we can provide right now," he said. "These roads primarily are the last part of our route ... It may be first for this contractor."

Bray said that specific targets for levels of service would be written into the contract with monetary penalties if those targets are missed.

"If you don't meet the goals, there is a price to pay," he said.

He said they are still trying to find the "sweet spot" on a level of service requirement, not wanting to discourage potential contractors entirely, but also not wanting to be too lax on requirements with a result of the contract's positive impact being minimized.

Commissioner Paul Koering compared the proposal to St. Mathias Township, which he said contracts out road maintenance and saves money by doing so.

"If the township I live in, St. Mathias, was going to have their own road patrol, they would have to have a garage, they would have to have an employee and on and on and on. Actually, I believe it is cheaper to contract out for the township," he said. "So you think Crow Wing County, in essence, would save money by doing that."

Bray said a competitive bidding process might lower maintenance costs, and placing nearly 60 miles of roadways in a contractor's hands would likely lead to a smaller budget for the department.

"It's a little too early to tell, so you won't see this for my 2015 budget," he said. "We want to make sure this works first, and that the contractors are able and willing to execute a contract."

Bray said if they were able to reduce staff, it would be done through attrition rather than layoffs. The department currently has two staff openings, the salaries of which are built into its 2014 and 2015 budgets, and Bray said these might not need to be filled if the proposal works as it's intended to.

Commissioner Paul Thiede said the department's proposal could have "big impact on the amount" in the budget.

Bray said that was a good point, but added, "I don't want to be premature and have something not work, and then have to come back for a levy increase next year."

Auditor-Treasurer Laureen Borden asked if it would be possible to seek bids separately for the FAD and SAD areas because of the distance between them.

"It would seem because of the distance between the two areas that it could be two separate contracts, because it may draw two different areas of contractors. They could bid on both or they could bid on one," she said. "I would suggest splitting it into two contracts."

Bray said it was something the department would consider. "That's a great point," he said. "Another thought, if they are having trouble with one, I wouldn't want the whole contract dissolved. If it happens where they run into problems, we would retain services."

There are services to those roads that the county would continue to operate, including roadway inspection, culvert replacement, engineering and construction. Bray said if the contractor were ever asked to perform any of these tasks, it would be drawn up in a separate agreement. The county would continue with crack sealing, which Bray described as a "completely different skill set." The county would also provide emergency responses, such as responding to downed trees in roadways, washed out culverts or water on the road.

"We're going to be able to get there sooner (for emergencies), frankly, and we owe that to those residents," Bray said.

With the board's approval, the department will advertise for bids as soon as possible and aim to have a contractor working no later than Nov. 1.

"I'd like to think that it's not going to snow before then ... but you never know, right?" Bray said. "So we want to be ready certainly before that if we can."

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her bachelor's degree in professional journalism at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Perkins interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins, and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before becoming the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as the county government beat reporter at the Dispatch and a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

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