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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Ely-area Joint Powers Board finds little to agree on

With Morse considering going solo, broadband project in jeopardy

Keith Vandervort
Posted 9/19/18

FALL LAKE TWP – The Ely-area Community Economic Development Joint Powers Board depends on the cooperation of its members to work together toward the goal of expanding economic opportunities for …

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Ely-area Joint Powers Board finds little to agree on

With Morse considering going solo, broadband project in jeopardy


FALL LAKE TWP – The Ely-area Community Economic Development Joint Powers Board depends on the cooperation of its members to work together toward the goal of expanding economic opportunities for area residents.

Yet such cooperation was far from evident at the Sept. 13 meeting held at Fall Lake Town Hall as officials from the city of Ely, ISD 696, Winton and Morse and Fall Lake townships differed over issues such as broadband and high-speed internet, shared ambulance service and area recycling needs.

Ely Mayor Chuck Novak asked for suggestions for the re-location of the St. Louis County recycle drop-off center to make room for the new recreational trailhead facility that is expected to break ground for construction next spring. “We received a $1.3 million bonding grant for the trailhead so the recycling (facility)will have to move,” Novak said. “If we don’t have it here anymore, the only one in the area will be on Hwy. 21 on the way to Babbitt.”

Ely City Council member Al Forsman noted that St. Louis County has offered to assist in setting up fencing and access construction to a new location. An Ely Sanitation Committee brainstorming session with county officials identified the Joint Public Works facility and the Morse Township Fire Hall property as possible locations. “It has to be on publicly-owned land,” he said. “The Ely location has three times the use of other (county) transfer stations and it’s obviously not just Ely residents. That’s why we are bringing it up for discussion here.”

The city of Ely and Morse Township are likely to be the only users of the St. Louis County facility. The city of Winton is establishing a curbside recycling pick-up service and Fall Lake is serviced by Lake County. “I know we have users from all over who use that facility.”

The current facility is secured by fencing, a gate and security cameras, but not personnel. Mayor Novak said the donated security camera system did result in a county truck driver being terminated for running over and leaving excess recycled items. “One guy left his old pizza box, with his name on it, outside the bin, so we got him as well,” he said.

Morse Township Supervisor Bob Berrini suggested relocating the recycling center to the city of Ely softball field property on Highway 1. “There are a lot of spots down there. At the first field to the right, it is all fill. We filled all that in,” he said.

Winton Mayor Kathy Brandau suggested the facility just be closed up. “Say you closed it. People will just have to deal with it,” she said.

“I’m not going to send 60- or 70-year-old people down to the (Highway 21) transfer site when they are hardly comfortable with driving in town,” Novak said.

“I’m 70-something and I drive there all the time,” Berrini responded.

Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital CEO Michael Coyle said some people recycle because it is the right thing to do. “You take away recycling in the community, all you are going to do is have them put that in the garbage and then you get increased costs,” he said.

Novak noted that St. Louis County will have final approval on a new location for the recycling center. Discussions will continue with the Ely Sanitation Committee.

Morse Township representatives dropped a bombshell on the Joint Powers Board by announcing they could be stepping away from an area-wide broadband project and going with their own plan.

The recently-completed broadband feasibility study, partially funded through the Blandin Foundation, is moving into the next phase, according to Novak, to determine costs and coverage area.

“We are looking at getting this off the ground quickly and offering a basic core of fiber optic service tied to the Northeast Service Co-op, and run the fiber to some poles and provide wireless broadband across the lake to Burntside and within the school district, and later on, as revenues come in, to start reinvesting and running fiber all over,” he said.

“As we were all participants in that study, it is upon us as leaders to make a decision if you are going to continue to be in (the co-op) or not be in,” Novak said.

Morse Supervisor Len Cersine announced that the township is planning to move forward on broadband alone. “We are going to try and run some broadband into the township, because right now we have nothing, absolutely nothing,” he said.

“The whole feasibility study was completed to lay out the best way to put broadband in,” Novak said.

“They have it running from Babbitt to Ely,” Berrini said, “but it doesn’t go to anybody’s house.”

Novak clarified that the project Berrini was referring to was the defunct Lake Connections plan that ran out of funding several years ago. “This is a totally different project,” he said.

“So is ours,” Berrini shot back. “We have six different poles. We put in for a grant. It will cost about $36,000 per pole, and they cover something like two miles. We can make a circle completely around Ely with ours.”

Novak pushed for a confirmation that Morse Township is going with their own broadband plan.

“We’re going to check on it. We’ll see what happens. We can’t wait. We can’t just have one part and the rest get nothing,” Berrini said.

Cersine said the “high-speed” internet project under consideration by Morse officials is through Frontier Communications.

“I wouldn’t put any faith in Frontier,” Novak said.

Cersine asserted, “Chuck, we are not abandoning your project, but we are checking on what we can do.”

Officials in the city of Ely (along with other entities) and Morse Township also remain on opposite sides of a proposal that would change how the area’s ambulance service would receive local funding.

The Ely Ambulance Service is considering changing their funding fee structure from a per-person to a per-parcel basis. Currently, governments in each entity contribute $5.05 per capita to fund part of the ambulance budget. The change has been discussed by the Ely Area Ambulance Joint Powers Board, and last year the Ely council endorsed the plan that was recommended moving to a $10 per parcel fee structure.

“We didn’t vote on that,” Berrini said.

Morse officials contend special legislation would be required for the Ely Area Ambulance Joint Powers Board to collect a per-parcel assessment on properties in Ely, Winton, Morse and Fall Lake.

According to Novak, no special legislation is required, but before any action can be taken, each governmental unit must vote to approve the change.

“We would never vote on that, I’ll tell you right now, Berrini said last week. “We’d be paying a hundred percent more than anybody. Is the ambulance that short of money that they need more, or what?”

Novak said the ambulance service will soon be building a new building near the hospital. “We have the money to do it,” he said. “If we go to billing per parcel, you then get your summer seasonals to contribute. Then they’re happy too. You get the unoccupied parcels to contribute, and the logging lands.”

Berrini suggested raising the per-person rate.

Novak explained that that a two-person household is now contributing $10.10. “The guy that’s a summer seasonal isn’t putting a nickel into it,” he said. “They too put in calls for the ambulance. They would be more than happy to pay to have that ambulance available.”

Clearly agitated by this by time, Novak added, “Why don’t we shut the ambulance down and say ‘the hell with it’ if nobody wants to keep the thing going.”

Coyle said he recently completed a study on the emergency room volume at the Ely hospital. “Our volume increases 18 percent in the four months of summer,” he said. “I just did a study on what I consider our local residents that have zip codes in Tower, Soudan, Isabella, Babbitt, Ely and Winton. That is what I consider our market share. In the summer our ER traffic jumps that much. If you are not asking the folks that have summer residences, you are missing the boat. Those are the folks that are contributing to that additional volume, along with the tourists.”

Berrini continued his opposition to the per-parcel plan. “If we went by parcels, between Fall Lake and the town of Morse, we would be paying well over two-thirds of the ambulance bill. I don’t care what you say, 70-percent of the (ambulance) calls are in the city of Ely,” he said. “This is all Chucky’s idea to do this.”


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