Pine County withdraws from the NLX Alliance

Updating an earlier discussion about the controversial Northern Lights Express rail line from Minneapolis to Duluth, Ailene Croup sends along this article from the Nov. 21 2013 issue of the Hinckley News (quoted with permission).

Pine County Board, at Tuesday’s regular meeting, voted 4-0 not to pay membership in the Northern Lights Express (NLX) Alliance. Commissioner Steve Chaffee did not attend the meeting.
The motion to give notice of withdrawal from NLX came from Commissioner Mitch Pangerl and was seconded by Commissioner Matt Ludwig.
Pangerl said he wasn’t in favor of the county paying for a vote on the NLX. He said NLX is a lobbying group for the train and decisions for the train have been handed over to Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).
The “loop” to the casino will be the only track owned by the State of Minnesota, he said. It will take the train to Grand Casino, a private entity, and take private land to do it.
“We have a list of signatures, of over 1,200 people in the county, not to be in the Alliance and not to support the train.” Pangerl added that businesses would be bypassed by the train going through Hinckley, but they would have to pay for it with taxes.
“If you want to do anything with economic development, take the money out of it. It would be better for the future of Pine County,” he said.
Several points made by Ludwig dealt with the stakeholders’ meeting held in Hinckley, Nov. 7, 2013. Six alternative routes to the casino were viewed and discussed to narrow down the preferred route, where new track would be laid from the main line outside Hinckley.
Ludwig said he was at the stakeholders’ meeting two weeks ago and Hinckley City Administrator Kyle Morell was seated at his table. Morell told their round table group the city of Hinckley did not want the train stop, they did not have room for it.
Ludwig said he had a discussion with MnDOT officials at that meeting and voiced his concern about crossings being closed in the northern part of the county. “They said they didn’t want to create any hardships but crossings are expensive.” He also asked MnDOT what would happen if they wanted to close a crossing and the township or county did not want it closed. They responded that they did not know what would happen.
Commissioner Steve Chaffee not being involved in the discussion, because much of the NLX issue is in his district, was a point of concern for Ludwig.
Commissioner Curt Rossow asked if there was talk of the promised stop in Sandstone at the stakeholders’ meeting. Pangerl and Ludwig said there was no discussion of a stop in Sandstone.
County Board Chairman Steve Hallan said he would ask for a roll call vote. First he commented that the late Commissioner Doug Carlson “would never, ever vote for a train to go to the casino. And, if that’s what it’s come down to, I won’t either.”
He said he “hung in there for a long time” because he thought there was some potential of economic development for Hinckley.
“The citizens of Hinckley have apparently decided they don’t want anything to do with a station in Hinckley. So, if they’re saying we don’t want any part of this, then I don’t think I can support it. So if this train gets built to the casino, it’s not the casino’s fault. Everyone else was given an opportunity to step up to the plate and they didn’t,” Hallan said.
Would the county have a better chance of “mitigating” issues such as crossings by themselves, was Hallan’s questioned. He wondered if the $6,000 the county owed for 2014 NLX membership would “buy us any clout. Maybe it doesn’t. I don’t know.”
Ludwig said what he understood, from the stakeholders meeting, was the study showed they had to “pick up the casino” in order to commit money for the NLX. He said “big government” would make the decision about crossings.
“It’s been obvious for some time, this board has been split on this issue,” Hallan added.
Both Pangerl and Hallan said they knew the project would not be supported by the late Commissioner Carlson if there was no cleanout/repair station in Sandstone and a stop in Hinckley.
County Attorney John Carlson was asked about the procedure to give notice to withdraw from the NLX. He said the joint powers agreement would allow withdrawal with no further input at the NLX meetings. With a vote not to participate and withdraw funding, the NLX Alliance could eliminate the county’s position on the board.
Hallan asked if it was better to vote not to participate.
Pangerl said his main concern was spending the county funds. “You can’t ban a commissioner from a meeting.” He restated that his motion was to withdraw funds and participation in the NLX.
“I don’t agree with tax dollars to pay for a vote,” Ludwig said. He was not concerned whether the county remained an active member.
The motion was changed to pull funding.
Attorney Carlson said the joint powers agreement calls for members to give 90 days notice before they withdraw funding or remove themselves. If the NLX budget has been approved for the upcoming year, the withdrawing member must pay that year and they have no stake in funds that are unspent.
With Commissioner Carlson’s passing and the election of a new board member, Pangerl said the county wouldn’t meet the 90 day requirement. There are other instances where the NLX policies haven’t been met such as Douglas County voting though not being a paying member. He said the Alliance should be asked to consider the circumstances. Pangerl said he didn’t feel it was appropriate to put the new board member, Ludwig, in a position of making a decision to fund membership on NLX without background on the project.
Pangerl’s motion was not to fund the NLX Alliance in 2014 and the Alliance can determine if Pine County’s member stays onboard.
Ludwig said he was comfortable with the amended motion.
The roll call vote was 4-0 in favor of not funding.