Some Otter Tail County employees will now be allowed to work remotely, as commissioners voted 4-1 on June 8 to approve a remote work policy that County Administrator Nicole Hansen said could affect as many as one in five county workers while serving as an incentive to hiring new employees.

"A great many employees this will not apply to because we're a consumer-oriented business. We need people in the building to serve our customers," she said. "There are a number of employees, though, that don't interact with the public in a way that they need to be onsite."

The policy was opposed by Commissioner Betty Murphy, who said she has heard that companies have decided against allowing remote work, as it could hurt workplace communication and teamwork and lead to workplace tension.

However, the competition for employees is tough these days, and Hansen said allowing some remote work would help Otter Tail County compete against other counties that have adopted remote work policies. It can also help the county recruit a more diverse workforce, such as offering jobs to those who aren't able to travel. Employees will have to be considered in good standing to be able to work from home.

"Our workforce is changing," Hansen said. "The individuals who are coming in have the expectation that we have flexibility. ... Employees don't have to be in front of you to get good work done."

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Commissioner Wayne Johnson said the arrangement will call for strong managerial skills, and that not all employees are self-directed.

Commissioners agreed to review the policy in one year.

Nelson Lake hearing continues

Commissioners continued to hear residents weigh in on what to do about Nelson Lake's high water levels flooding County Road 6 and nearby township roads and property.

This is the lake that has worried residents in Douglas County, as the county had proposed building a ditch to lower water levels. Douglas County residents oppose the ditch, saying it would contribute to flooding and water pollution, as Nelson Lake is polluted with phosphorus.

Don Riedel, chairman of the Parkers Prairie Township Board, said he wants to see the lake drained in some way, as even a few inches of rain and wind could devastate township roads.

However, resident Carol Hellerman voiced ambivalence about draining the lake. Her family has lost pasture land to rising waters, but then they've also gained a lake with good quality fishing, she said. She was also concerned about having to pay for a ditch.

Commission Chairman Lee Rogness told them that a county committee would be working on solutions.

"Certainly public infrastructure is high priority for our community," he said.

Commissioners acknowledged that no matter what they do, someone will be unhappy.

"There's not an easy fix here," Commissioner Kurt Mortenson said.

OTC vaccinations lag behind the state

Otter Tail County has seen 44 more COVID cases, four more COVID death confirmations and five more COVID hospitalizations in the past two weeks, Public Health Director Jody Lien told commissioners.

The virus is less prevalent in the county than it had been, she said, but the positivity rate, while still low, has ticked up a bit to 2.7% from 1.7% the previous week.

Vaccinations lag behind the state, with 52.4% of county residents age 16 and up having had their first dose, compared to 65.2% for the state. Just under half of those age 16 and up have completed their vaccinations, compared to 60.1 percent for the state, Lien said.

Commissioner Dan Bucholz, sounding frustrated, said that during a recent hospital stay, the nurses and doctors he talked to didn't understand the opposition to vaccinations.

Murphy questioned the testing data itself, saying she had heard that a high percent of PCR tests, which go to a lab for testing, return false positives. She did not cite her sources for that information, and Lien said she considers PCR tests to be the "gold standard" for COVID testing.

Bids exceeding county estimates

Economic conditions are causing the county's road work costs to rise.

The low bid for seal coating county roads came in 11% above the engineer's estimate.

When Murphy questioned it, County Engineer Charles Grotte said the higher bid prices reflect rising costs of oil and labor.

Commissioners awarded the contract to the low bidder, Morris Sealcoat & Trucking, of just under $1.5 million.

The bids for traffic marking also came in higher, about 6.5% above the engineer's estimate, and went to the low bid of $108,000 from Traffic Marking Service, Inc., of Maple Lake.

One road project bid came in significantly lower than the county estimate, and that was for crushing material to build road shoulders. The winning bid, $81,812 from Brown Excavating of Glenwood, came in at less than half the estimated cost.

Other action:

  • Commissioners applauded a dairy that is expanding in Elmo Township. W.B. Stone, Inc., will be going from 400 cows to 600 when its expansion is done. "I just want to applaud the expansion of the dairy industry in Otter Tail County," Johnson said, while Murphy called it a "beautiful operation" and Rogness said the expansion was important news for the county.
  • Commissioners gave Sheriff Barry Fitzgibbon the authority to continue no-wake zones on Spitzer and Twin lakes for another 30 days. However, Murphy said one property owner on Twin Lake had asked for the wake zone to be removed, as the lake had dropped four inches. The commission approved the measure anyway, as it only authorizes the no-wake zone and doesn't require it.
  • This fall, an airplane will fly over Otter Tail County, using lasers to record detailed maps of landforms like drained wetlands, old building sites, remnant fence lines and structures normally hidden by vegetation. The airplane was already scheduled to map the two-thirds of the county that lies within the Red River Basin, and commissioners committed to paying somewhere between $98,000 to $118,000 to map the one-third of the county, east Otter Tail, that lies outside that basin, about 786 square miles. GIS Lead Developer George Meyer said the technology, known as LiDAR, has improved significantly since the last time the county had it done in 2009. The data can be used for county ditch assessments and historical research, and for those with water level issues. "We need to do that. I'm all in favor of that," Bucholz said.
  • Commissioners agreed to sell three tax-forfeited properties. One is a land-locked parcel on Midland Beach on Pelican Lake, which will be auctioned to adjacent landowners, with a minimum bid of $119,000. The other is a lot with a trailer home at 105 Maine Ave. S., which it agreed to sell to the City of New York Mills for $2,000. The third is a blighted property at 117 1st Ave. NW in Pelican Rapids, which it will sell to Otter Tail County HRA for $1.