Lake County commissioners found themselves holding an informal public hearing on Tuesday morning when Lake County resident Danielle Kearin posed questions about the Lake County Five-Year Highway and Bridge Improvement Plan during a regular meeting.
Normally, public comments are only accepted during the portion of the meeting designated for that purpose. However, Shelli Gust, commission administrative officer, told commissioners they could hear from Kearin if they chose to do so.
Kearin told commissioners she did not know about the public meeting on the previous day because she does not listen to the local radio station or read The Daily Leader. Gust told her the meeting had been also posted on the county's website and may have been posted on the county's Facebook page. A search of the county's Facebook page confirmed an announcement was posted on Sept. 22.
As County Highway Superintendent Nels Nelson reviewed the plan which was introduced at the public meeting on Monday, Commissioner Aaron Johnson was the first to raise a question, noting that fewer miles were marked for chip sealing than in previous years.
"If we have the money to do more, we can do more," Nelson replied. He explained the cost for chip sealing roads is increasing and said the condition of some roads required them to be chip sealed twice.
"Our budget isn't keeping up with the paved roads we have," he said.
When Commissioner Deb Reinicke asked why the county was able to chip seal 17 miles in 2020, Nelson said the county had rock stockpiled.
"We could focus our funds on oil and labor," Nelson reported.
He said the county usually did five miles of overlay each year but would only be doing one mile in 2021, the mile of 463rd Ave. north of SD-34 which is being ground up this year. Instead of doing overlay, the county would continue to replace culverts that are failing.
Nelson explained the roads designated for overlay in the following years -- 233rd St. east of Madison and 462nd St. connecting 233rd to SD-34 -- were selected because they are heavily traveled and in poor condition. During 2024 and '25, ten miles of 448th Ave. south of Junius are scheduled for overlay.
Johnson questioned whether it was appropriate to move that road to the top of the list. He observed the damage is due to the beating it took as a result of work being done on the dairy farm, which will also benefit from the new road.
"I feel for those people who were within a year of getting a new road," he said, referencing the stretch of 451st Ave. south of SD-34 which was scheduled for an overlay project in 2021. He asked if four miles could be added to the plan for '21, but did not receive support from other commissioners for this change.
At this point, Kearin, who previously addressed the commission on Sept. 17, wanted to know what criteria Nelson used in making decisions regarding county roads. Nelson replied that his decisions were based on his observations from driving the roads and from reviewing complaints the department received.
Kearin asked if she needed to make more complaints. Nelson encouraged her to call to report problems because his crew cannot drive every road every week.
Johnson supported Nelson by also addressing Kearin's question.
"There's no good way to measure traffic because it's seasonal. You depend upon judgment calls," Johnson said.
Reinicke also responded to Kearin, explaining the county was doing catch-up, not only from the flooding but also from the failure to properly maintain roads in the past.
"I don't know if we'll ever get caught up. It's a money issue," Reinicke said.
Johnson elaborated on Reinicke's answer, explaining that Nelson's priorities differ from the previous highway superintendents' priorities.
Kearin expressed the opinion that the community response to the highway plan would be less contentious if the county used objective criteria rather than the highway superintendent's judgment. She said her road, which is among those being ground up this year, "didn't seem like a logical candidate for gravel."
Nelson explained that her road had never been paved but was a black-seal gravel road. It had been packed and chip sealed. After that was done, it could not be maintained as a gravel road, but had to be repaired with hot mix like a paved road.
Kearin continued to object to the decision, indicating she didn't think it was fair to remove the surface when she didn't have "the luxury to go around it."
"On the record, here's me making noise," she said.
Commissioners discussed options for improving attendance at the annual open house public meeting to receive community comments on the transportation plan. Johnson noted it is the county's largest budget item, and Reinicke dovetailed his comment by saying public input was important.
Gust offered an alternative perspective, saying the plan was developed to show the state how the county was using its road and bridges fund. This, she indicated, was necessary to qualify for a Bridge Improvement Grant.
"Keep in mind, it's just a plan," she said. She described it as a tool that could be amended.
Following the discussion, the commission approved a resolution adopting the five-year highway and bridge improvement plan.