Can Crow Wing County be a model for the state on how to reopen businesses while prioritizing safety during the pandemic?

County Administrator Tim Houle thinks so, and county government is working with area chambers of commerce to provide consultation on business reopening plans in an effort to get the economy up and running as quickly as possible while offering customers peace of mind.

“I think there are folks out there in the community that are scared — right, wrong, or indifferent — and (we’re) trying to get as many businesses’ customers back and with safety protocols. So we’re voluntarily helping our business community to do that,” Houle told the county board Tuesday, May 12.

As of Monday, Houle said county public health officials and others had reviewed eight plans, including those for gyms, salons and resorts. Houle noted it’s not a requirement for businesses to submit their plans, but it offers an opportunity for review by those with expertise in the public health arena.

After the meeting, Houle gave an example of a creative idea from a plan he said he wouldn’t have thought of himself. Roundhouse Brewery in Brainerd intends to place flip charts on its tables with red and green placards. If the placard is flipped to red, that would mean the table has not yet been sanitized following the departure of the previous guests. If it’s green, that means the table is ready for reseating.

This path toward business reopenings is a better approach than the outright rebellion displayed in some communities, Houle proffered.

“To just open the door, the concern there is, just opening the door will not bring back your customers who are afraid. So you might have 30% of your customer base that doesn’t come back,” Houle said. “So I understand, I get it, why a business is very frustrated and wants to reopen because of the economic collapse. That’s a very legitimate point of view.

“I’m also trying to deal with those who are scared that they’re going to contract the virus, and how do we figure out how to do commerce with safety? That’s the effort we’re trying to engage in, in reviewing those business plans. And it is to show people that there is a different way to do it, there is a better way to do it, other than just to have a rebellion.”

Later that same day, the city council of one Crow Wing County community took action in defiance of Gov. Tim Walz’s orders. The Pequot Lakes City Council voted 4-1 on a resolution allowing the city’s businesses to reopen, provided they follow health guidelines and safety practices, including social distancing, hygiene, facial coverings, on-site sanitation and limiting the number of people inside a store.

Wednesday, Houle said he sympathized with the sentiment but was not in favor of governments engaging in civil disobedience.

“It reflects that portion of our population that are hurting in a way that they have probably never hurt before — people whose livelihoods, their investments, everything they’ve worked their lives to support. It’s not hard to understand that impulse, it really isn’t,” he said. “That said, if the government doesn’t follow the rules, why would anyone else?”

Houle said there is a rich history of civil disobedience among individuals and social movements in the United States leading to substantial improvements in various elements of society. But he said there are other ways to accomplish the ends desired in this case.

“The government, I don’t believe, should be engaged in civil disobedience against another level of government,” Houle said. “We are the government, we are the law. And when governments engage in civil disobedience to another level of government, I think it is darn close to anarchy.”

County budget questions

Houle provided the county board with a number of other updates from various departments, much of which focused on current and future county budgets. The county’s budget performance through April was good, he said, even when accounting for the more than $700,000 in costs so far as a result of the coronavirus response. Revenues were as expected and expenditures were on target as well at 99.62% on budget.

“The move you guys took on capital projects is going to turn out to have been a ‘thank goodness we did that’ move as it relates to our 2020 budget,” Houle said.

In April, the county board voted to suspend spending on all of its capital improvement projects originally slated for 2020, amounting to more than $900,000 in funds that could be redirected elsewhere.

The questions begin to arise as staff looks ahead to the 2021 budget, the preparation process for which is about to begin. Many unknowns will make it difficult to accurately project next year’s circumstances, including how the state government chooses to handle federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act. The county hypothetically would be eligible for up to $4.6 million of those funds, but the Legislature could choose to keep that funding for the state as it faces a forecast estimating a $2.4 billion deficit.

Jail revenue has decreased by at least $250,000 due to the lack of state prisoners in Crow Wing County’s facility. Costs have increased in community services as that department has processed approximately 500 new public assistance cases, although Houle noted there are also state and federal funding sources associated with those programs.

Houle said county program aid is in question, along with how state sales and gas taxes will be affected. The county is estimating its local option sales tax may be down by as much as 18% this year. Those dollars are used to fund transportation improvement projects.

“Watching what happens with that fluctuating state aid is really important for us,” Houle said. “It’s going to make 2021 budgeting, which we’re going to begin shortly here, very difficult to predict.

Holy cow, we’re going to have to make some educated guesses and you know they’re going to be wrong, it’s a question of to what degree are they wrong.”

All these considerations means 2021 will require austere budgeting practices, he said, to hold down costs as much as possible. During the Great Recession, one of the tools used to reduce expenditures was offering early retirement incentives to employees and keeping positions open for longer than usual periods of time. But Houle said with a recent history of consistent decreases in the county’s property tax levy, much of that leeway is no longer available.

“We start this a little bit more behind the eight ball, and that’s why I don’t think early retirement incentives are really going to get us very far,” he said.

State of emergency

Although extending the county’s local emergency declaration was not on Tuesday’s agenda, Chairman Paul Koering said he would not support it when the time comes. The board extended the declaration once already on April 23, and it lasts for 30 days before requiring another extension.

“I don’t see any need to do that anymore. I feel that the county board has relinquished too much authority on that declaration and I’m just not going to support that anymore,” Koering said. “I think there’s just too many sheep that are just following along and thinking they’re supposed to just go along with everything that the state government or the governor is saying, and I don’t agree with a lot of it.”

Houle has previously stated the local emergency declaration allows county government to sidestep regulations tied to purchasing, such as going out for bids, which allows the prioritization of buying from local businesses. It also permits limiting in-person access to county board meetings due to social distancing guidance from state and federal public health officials and keeping county buildings closed to the public.

Houle said Tuesday the county is on track to do a soft reopen of its facilities to the public by Monday, barring “some unforeseen drastic circumstance,” with a number of mitigation measures and more protective equipment in place.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.