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Otter Tail County highway public meetings scheduled

Otter Tail County leaders were so pleased with input they got from the public at some recent highway meetings that they’ve scheduled additional public meetings to take place this spring.

In January, the county’s highway department and public works division held meetings in Fergus Falls, Perham, Pelican Rapids and Henning, where the 2010-2016 Highway Improvement Plan was reviewed, and information was presented on current and future highway conditions, funding, planning efforts and strategies.

Additional meetings have now been tentatively scheduled in the same communities, at 7 p.m. April 7 in Fergus Falls, April 10 in Pelican Rapids, April 21 in Perham and April 24 in Henning. The Perham meeting will be held at City Hall.

“Overall roadway maintenance goals were discussed at the January meetings, and in April we’ll roll out what we have in mind,” said County Engineer Rick West to county board members last Tuesday. “We’ll inform county residents about specific strategies.”

The Otter Tail County Highway Department is responsible for 1,062 miles of highway, all of which are bituminous and costly to maintain, said West.

“Through these county-wide meetings, we’re pointing out the objective of our transportation plans,” said West. “We want county residents to share their ideas. We respect community values and public input.”

County commissioners agreed with West.

“People attending the January public meetings...told us to do what needs to be done when it comes to highway maintenance,” said County Board Chairman Wayne Johnson. “Many recommended that we find money from within the county budget, cutting other areas if necessary in order to maintain our roadways.”

With this in mind, the county has two options available in future years: Implementing a half-cent sales tax, which would raise approximately $4.2 million on an annual basis; or putting a wheelage tax in place, by adding $10 per license tab, which would raise about $500,000 annually.

“All 87 counties in Minnesota should work together and address taxes on fuel consumption,” said Commissioner Lee Rogness.

Doug Huebsh, who represents the Perham area on the county board, said high-use roadways should have high priority when it comes to roadway maintenance. Some roadways, he said, may have even more usage with the possible expansion of bus routes to towns such as Perham, where there’s a big increase in job openings.

John Lindquist, who represents the Dalton area on the board, said a sales tax could be implemented to allow for more dollars for roadway maintenance. If other revenue sources are later found, the sales tax could always be repealed, he said.

Public input from county residents is the key for roadway maintenance planning, said Commissioner Roger Froemming of the Parkers Prairie area.

“We need to look 20 years into the future,” added West. “Confidence in what we do, and trust from county residents, is critical. It’s a partnership between county government and the county residents we’re privileged to serve.”

Final plans, said West, won’t be made by the county board until summer 2014.