County officials call for citizen input on 911 signs

By Chris Schafer

Citizens traveling along the roads of Morrison County have likely seen the local 911 signs. These signs, vertical in shape, one-sided in their graphics, and painted in a now faded red, are spread out all across the county.

Vertical? One-sided? Faded? Perhaps county residents haven’t seen these signs.

It was with this concern in mind that Planning and Zoning Administrator Roger Kuklok and Public Works Director Steve Backowski brought forth the proposal of replacing these signs to the board at the Morrison County Commissioners planning session on March 25.

A new first response system in Morrison County does not mean simply replacing old signs with a newer version. It means replacing them with an improved model. The newly proposed signs run horizontal instead of vertical and are bright blue instead of the traditional red. They are also two-sided signs that will face the road like a speed limit sign. The current models are perpendicular to the road.

All of these features are designed to make the signs more easily noticed by rescue workers attempting to respond to a call. The blue color has been proven to stand out especially well during difficult winter conditions. Similar first response systems currently exist in Cass and Crow Wing counties. Todd County also uses blue signs, though their’s are vertical.

Don Meyer, District Four, was interested in hearing the proposal, commenting that sign upkeep was no different than filling road cracks in the spring. “Its maintenance,” he said.

As with all replacement work, money becomes an issue and the county board members have pledged their desire to hear from the public on what it would like to see done with the signs. Before them now are three options.

The first option is to simply adopt no new plan at all. Under this option, the signs would be replaced as they always have been, on a need to replace basis. Replacement signs would continue to be red and vertical, just as their predecessors were. Financial resources would then be slowly accumulated and the unified change from the red, vertical signs to the blue, horizontal signs would happen five to 10 years from now with no new financial cost to the taxpayers.

The second option calls for all of the red signs to be replaced with the new, high intensity blue signs. The new markers would be added to the existing posts, rather than having new posts planted, which would save the county money. Using existing posts also cuts into the funds necessary to budget for Gopher State. Gopher State’s services would be necessary to ensure that new posts are not drilled into power lines hidden beneath the soil. Places where a signpost already exists are safe and would require no additional assistance from Gopher State.

Financially, option two would cost between $350,000 and $400,000 to finish. In addition to the physical materials required for this plan, the budget also allots for the work of Sentenced to Serve (STS). STS would be responsible for adding new posts in necessary locations, pre-approved by Gopher State.

The money for this plan would come from one of two options. The first option would cover the cost with an addition to the public property taxes through which all of the taxpayers in the county would shoulder the burden of replacing the first response sign system. Taxpayers could expect to see their property taxes rise by $15 to $20.

The second option is to set a special assessment through which those who will have a sign replaced on their property would be financially responsible for the sign. Officials estimate that some 12,000 signs will be needed for the plan. Under the assessment plan for option two, residents receiving a sign in their yard could expect to pay between $29 and $34.

The third and final option involves replacing all of the signs and their posts altogether. Officials would remove any current posts that still remain and replace them with new, lower gauge posts. These new posts are lighter weight and less expensive than the posts currently used. The addition of new posts would allow officials to place the posts in better, more uniform positions. Many of the current posts have become hidden behind trees or in brush. Some are simply too far away from the road to be effectively noticed.

While this plan would leave Morrison County residents with the most uniform system available, it would also be the most expensive. Financial estimates for this plan place the bill at nearly $600,000. STS would again become involved in this plan. Public Works would also play a role, removing existing posts from their current locations. With the replacing of every sign, Gopher State’s role could grow considerably.

Once again the money for this plan would come from either public property tax revenue or an assessment. Officials estimate that 12,000 signs will again be necessary. The assessment cost to citizens with signs on their property, under option three, figures to be $50.

Nothing has been decided at this moment with regards to the 911 signs. During their planning session, the commissioners decided to formally discuss the issue at the county’s May 3 hearing. Should any new plan – either option two or option three – be adopted, county officials wish to have the renovations done within a year to a year and a half period. This would prevent two first response systems from running simultaneously. Such a predicament would make the work of first responders and law enforcement officials considerably more difficult.

With regards to law enforcement, renovating the first response system has its conditional support. Sheriff Michel Wetzel sat on the panel with Kuklok and Backowski though he said that replacing the first response sign network was not his proposal. Wetzel said he supports the idea but he is concerned that, should the plan be approved, it will deplete the funds that may have gone towards improving the dispatch system currently used by the sheriff’s department. To Wetzel, changes to the dispatch system are more important. County Administrator Timothy Houle said that an assessment would not divert funds from renovating the dispatch system. It is possible a property tax increase would.

Now Wetzel, Houle and the county commissioners are waiting to hear from the general public. Any and all citizen comments on the sign debate are not only welcomed but also encouraged. Interested persons can contact the county office or their local commissioner.

Phone numbers:

County office: 320-632-2941

Board members:

District 1, Tom Wenzel: 320-749-2288

District 2, Jeff Schilling: 320-745-2617

District 3, Gene Young: 320-745-2537

District 4, Don Meyer: 320-468-6096

District 5, Bill Block: 320-749-2013

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