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.
The Crow Wing County Board made the unanimous decision Tuesday, March 23, to remove public access restrictions on the building, put in place in the midst of the November surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the county and state.
Commissioner Bill Brekken made the motion in support of reopening 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 Chairman Steve Barrows absent.
The land services building serves as the primary customer service counter for a variety of matters, including environmental permitting, water planning and forest management, property valuation and taxes, document recording, land sales and vital records. Those who choose to conduct business with the county in person will still be required to adhere to other COVID-19 safety protocols, including wearing masks and social distancing.
As for opening other buildings on the county campus, County Administrator Tim Houle said the rate of vaccination among county employees is a “significant milestone” in considering expanding public access. As of March 16, Houle said 20-25% of county employees were at least partly vaccinated.
While there was little discussion during Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners discussed at length the considerations and complexities of reopening buildings to the public during the March 16 committee of the whole meeting. The subject was first broached this month by Commissioner Paul Koering, who during the March 9 meeting said he was ready to take action on reopening to the public beyond virtual and appointment-based services.
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“I know that we’re not closed, we’re open by appointment only, but that isn’t the same as somebody walking in. And it isn’t going to be long and the property tax statements are going to come out and people — a lot of people — want to come in immediately and pay that and they’d like to get a receipt,” Koering said while participating in the March 9 board meeting virtually from Florida.
Franzen said she’d heard from constituents confused about why the county buildings are still closed when it seemed most places were once again open. This, coupled with frustration over simple transactions, such as handing over a check, requiring a lengthy appointment with land services staff, was driving her own desire for changes.
During the March 16 meeting, Koering said he’d like to see county board meetings opened up to public attendance as well, while Franzen advocated for reopening both the land services and community services buildings — both of which see the highest traffic of those requiring county services.
“Let’s get these buildings unlocked so people don’t think we’re not working,” Franzen said.
Community Services Director Kara Terry told the board she had some concerns about unlocking the doors right now while her staff conducts vaccination clinics for targeted populations.
“It got pretty tricky pretty quickly to try and have someone sitting in the lobby and allowing access for the vaccine clinic and then also for appointments,” Terry said during the committee meeting. “So we’re trying to not schedule as many appointments on vaccine 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 a continuation of the way we’re providing service today to continue.”
As for county board meetings, Houle said it becomes complicated when limiting the number of participants due to capacity restrictions. He said while the county has the authority to react to how people behave in their buildings — such as not wearing masks or failing to adequately social distance — limiting access to a certain number of people in the boardroom could spell trouble.
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“I don’t believe you’d be able to turn anybody away. If you’re going to allow people in, then you would risk that the reason you’re not letting them in is because of the content of what they want to tell you,” Houle said.
Houle shared with the board how cities in the county are handling public access as well as surrounding counties. In the cities of Brainerd and Pequot Lakes, city councils are meeting in person but public attendance is virtual only. In Baxter, the city council continues to meet virtually. Nisswa and Crosby meetings are both open to in-person attendance by the public, but Crosby’s city offices are closed to the public.
The county boards in Aitkin, Morrison and Cass do permit in-person meeting attendance by the public, although they encourage virtual attendance. According to Houle, Cass County staff said they “hold their breath” every board meeting, not knowing whether a big number might attend. A few planning and zoning meetings in Aitkin County made some staff members nervous as well, he said, because a significant number of people showed up.
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Commissioner Doug Houge pointed out the schools are limiting the number of fans attending sporting events and wondered why that couldn’t be applied for the county boardroom as well. Franzen said the television in the vestibule outside the boardroom would allow people to watch the meeting and still socially distance if the room was filled to the capacity limitations currently required by executive order.
“If someone wants to actually speak, I would think they would be allowed to come in and someone else go out,” Franzen said. “There’s ways to work this out.”
Houle noted meetings of the planning commission and board of adjustment occur in the evenings after hours, and it would be difficult to police capacity limitations and other COVID-19 safety protocols in that situation. He said a recent hearing drew 35 participants in the virtual format, and it would be difficult to accommodate such a group in person for the time being.
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“How do you control those entry points?” Barrows said. “If you leave the doors open, there’s no control, and the numbers can grow. And I’m just being the devil’s advocate here, because I think that’s a real possibility.”
As the conversation concluded at the March 16 committee meeting, all commissioners appeared 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 moving forward when appropriate.
“Our meetings will stay the way they are, for all the different commissions out there, for the time being. We will revisit this, probably, 24 hours from now,” Barrows said with a tongue-in-cheek nod toward the ever-changing guidelines of pandemic life.