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On courthouse staffing, Carlton County officials hesitantly agree to letter of understanding

The Carlton County Board of Commissioners approved an amended letter of understanding regarding the use of the current courthouse and the city of Carlton, for when the county moves its operation to the proposed justice center.

File: Carlton County Jail aerial
The Carlton County Courthouse (left) and jail in Carlton. Steve Kuchera / 2019 file / Pine Journal

The Carlton County Board of Commissioners were slightly confused as to why the city of Carlton had given them a letter of understanding for the courthouse use, after both parties had agreed to keep the current courthouse staffed when operations move to the proposed justice center. The board accepted an amended letter at its Tuesday, Nov. 8, meeting, which will now go back to the Carlton City Council for approval.

The letter of understanding was submitted from the city to the county as a condition of the city's vote to annex land for the proposed justice center.

“I felt like we had a gentleman’s agreement. Where did we go from that meeting to this?” asked District 3 Commissioner Tom Proulx. "How did we get from our meeting to legal agreements and potential costs to the taxpayer?"

The board voted 4-1 to sign the letter of understanding, with Proulx voting against.

The letter of understanding, which was sent to the county from the city of Carlton in October, outlines what the city expects from the county when it moves forward with the proposed justice center.

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The main requirement is for the county to maintain a presence in the first three floors of the current courthouse. The letter states the county will have to have the courthouse occupied to 60% of the levels from the two years before the coronavirus pandemic, 2018 and 2019. There is a $200 penalty per year for each percentage point below 60%.
According to the letter, any money received from the county would be put into the city’s business subsidy fund. The county will also be asked to reimburse the city for any costs or filing fees they incur from the annexation process.

The letter of understanding would last 20 years. If the county does not follow the 60% staffing requirement, the maximum contribution it would have to make to the city of Carlton would be $12,000 annually.

Carlton County Attorney Lauri Ketola said she had some concerns about the letter.

“I have concerns about that, that this board would entrench a future board because we don’t know what the makeup of this board is going to be in five years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years,” she said.

After working with the city of Carlton’s attorney, Ketola said city officials changed the original proposal from the 60% staffing requirement to requiring the county to move the Department Motor Vehicles to the current courthouse in 2025.

“It would be asking this board to make a decision for a 2025 board very specific to the DMV,” she said.

The legal advice from Ketola was that the occupancy agreement would be the lesser commitment for future boards and the most beneficial option for both the city and county.

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"Of the options that have been made available, I believe the 60% option is the best option," she said. "Your options today are to not agree to the letter of understanding and leave it to the city to decide if they want to agree to the annexation or not."

Not agreeing to a letter of understanding would be more of a gamble since the county needs the city of Carlton to annex the land for the justice center project. Minnesota law requires the facility be in the county seat.

None of the board members were interested in moving the DMV. District 4 Commissioner Mark Thell said commissioners have no idea what it would take to move the DMV.

“We have not done a study (on) what it would cost us to move the (DMV),” he said. “I don’t think we are at that point where we could even entertain that portion of it without knowing some basic numbers or some logistics.”

The county also does not have an obligation to have a DMV.

Dennis Genereau, county coordinator and county property management director, said he would support the letter because he knows the county will have no problem meeting the 60% requirement.

“As your property management director, I am pretty comfortable that you are going to meet that 60%,” he said.

The city of Carlton wanted the agreement in writing, which was why the letter was drafted. Carol Conway, Carlton's clerk and treasurer was present for the meeting and said when operations move to the proposed justice center, the city does not want to lose the foot traffic downtown from people who work in the courthouse.

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The current courthouse is structurally stable and Genereau said the county plans to use the building for a long time.

“There are no plans to get rid of the courthouse, in fact there are plans to replace the roof and update the interior and make it a more modern, usable building,” he said.

District 2 Commissioner Marv Bodie said with the scope of the proposed justice center project, coming in at over $60 million, there isn’t going to be money to add on to the project to move staff there.

“Our hands are going to be tied … because the taxpayers aren’t going to allow anybody to add more buildings out here,” he said. “I don’t think Carlton has anything to worry about as far as that building getting emptied out ... people will be coming through there as they have been for 100 years.”

The letter the board adopted is similar to the original one proposed by the city, but with amendments from Ketola, including a clause that says if it were impossible to fill the building, the county would be exempt from the occupancy requirement.

No counter offer had been made to the city’s original proposal of 60% occupancy, as the county staff did not feel the threshold would be a problem.

“I’m sad that two units of government can’t look at this situation and say, ‘What is in the best interest of the people in Carlton County?’” Proulx said.

This story originally included the incorrect amount the county would owe the city of Carlton annually if it did not meet the staffing requirement. It was originally posted at 9 a.m. Nov. 10. It was updated at 8:52 a.m. Nov. 15 with the proper amount. The Pine Journal regrets the error.

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