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By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — The Dunn County Board has decided against declaring a state of emergency that would apply to county employees, buildings and facilities in relation to the current surge of COVID-19 cases fueled by the Omicron variant.
The state of emergency would only apply to county employees, facilities and buildings and would allow the county manager, in consultation with the Dunn County Health Department and the Dunn County Board chair, to make decisions about responding to the pandemic, said Paul Miller, county manager, at the Dunn County Board’s January 19 meeting.
During the public comments portion of the meeting, Andrew Mercil, county clerk, read a number of e-mail messages from county residents urging the county board not to declare a state of emergency.
Some of the authors of the e-mail messages said they did not want a county-wide mask mandate while others indicated COVID-19 does not cause severe illness or is easily treatable with off-label or at-home remedies.
Miller said the declaration of a state of emergency would affect county employees and buildings and that he was not interested in mask mandates, stay-at-home orders or prohibiting gatherings of county residents.
During his COVID-19 update to the county board, Miller reported that COVID-19 was making a “major surge” in Dunn County and there had been 662 new cases in the past week with 1,550 probable cases.
The average number of cases per day — 117 — exceeds the one-day total peak of cases in November of 2021, Miller said.
Meanwhile, the vaccination rate of county residents has “barely moved” at 46.8 percent, he said.
The Omicron variant has a high transmission rate, and if more people get sick, that will have a negative impact on the hospitals and healthcare systems, Miller said.
As of the night of the county board meeting, there was one Intensive Care Unit bed available in the region, and the hospitals were at full capacity, with one hospital diverting patients elsewhere, he said.
Dunn County can “lead by example” to respond in real time and can take measures to keep county employees and visitors to county facilities safe, Miller said.
If the county board approved the resolution, then the county buildings could be closed to the public again, noted David Bartlett, county board supervisor from Boyceville and chair of the Dunn County Board.
Mike Rogers, county board supervisor from Menomonie, said he was concerned that declaring a state of emergency and allowing the county manager to make decisions about COVID-19 protocols would take the decision-making away from the Dunn County Board.
If some action needs to be taken, a special meeting of the county board can be scheduled, he said.
“I’m not sure why we are considering this,” Rogers said.
Tom Quinn, county board supervisor from Downing, said he had voted “no” during the executive committee about advancing the resolution for a state of emergency to the county board.
Declaring a state of emergency is “misguided” and is not a policy the county board should adopt because it would only cause more confusion and division, he said.
There are already policies in place regarding COVID-19 for the employees and the county buildings. The policies are not “emergency” policies but are “regular” policies that can be changed and modified through executive committee action, Quinn said.
If need be, the county board can hold a special meeting, he said.
Larry Bjork, county board supervisor from Menomonie, said he also could not support the resolution for a declaring a state of emergency.
KT Gallagher, director of the Dunn County Health Department, is highly intelligent and “we are lucky to have her,” Bjork said.
The supervisors on the Dunn County Board, however, “are not paid spectators,” he said.
The county manager would prefer that the county board members be paid spectators, but the county board supervisors do not want to be paid spectators, Bjork said.
County facilities are more than the buildings and include, for example, the Dunn County Rec Park. Could Miller use the state of emergency to cancel the Dunn County Fair because it is a public health hazard or could the state of emergency be used as an “end around run” at canceling races at the racetrack? he asked.
The county board must “stand up” as supervisors and make decisions, Bjork said, adding that he was asking for a roll call vote on the resolution.
“We must act as supervisors and not spectators,” Bjork said.
Sheila Stori, county board supervisor from Menomonie, asked about the Menomonie school district’s youth hockey program, which operates out of a building at the Dunn County Rec Park.
Could the state of emergency be used to tell the Menomonie school district there can be no youth hockey? she asked.
Youth hockey is separate from the county buildings. The youth hockey program is allowed by contract, Gallagher said.
The Omicron variant means cases will likely double or triple for the next two or three more weeks, Stori said, and asked about the number of county employees who are sick.
The number of cases among county employees is reflective of the county’s percentage of cases, with spreading events occurring in county offices, Gallagher said.
The health department looks at the number of cases on the county level, she said, noting that she does not have information on the percentage of county staff who are infected.
Working from home would help with staffing issues and would not affect county employee productivity, Stori said.
Dunn County already has a policy on working at home, but the state of emergency would also allow the county to lock down the buildings if needed, Bartlett said.
If the buildings are locked down, how is the public going to conduct county business? Stori wondered.
Closing the buildings would affect the ability to serve the public, Bartlett said.
If the county board approves the state of emergency, giving the county manager the ability to close the buildings, what about The Neighbors of Dunn County? Would the state of emergency allow The Neighbors to be closed to visitors or affect who could visit? asked Mike Kneer, county board supervisor from Menomonie.
Earlier in the meeting, Jody Kromrey, county board supervisor from Menomonie, said she’d had people tell her if The Neighbors was on lock-down again, they would take their loved ones out of the facility.
The ability of people to visit The Neighbors is not governed by Dunn County. Nursing homes are covered by a different agency, Bartlett said.
The Center for Medicaid and Medicare is encouraging nursing homes to stay open so residents can have visitors, Gallagher said.
Dunn County employees are encouraged to work from home after a high-risk activity. The recommendation is to help prevent transmission among county employees, she said.
Dunn County has no authority, then, to tell employees they must work from home, Kneer said.
Working from home is a recommendation, Bartlett said.
There are already policies in place to help keep employees and visitors safe, said Robert Bauer, county board supervisor from Mondovi, who added that he could not support the state of emergency resolution.
With or without
Carl Vandermeulen, county board supervisor from Menomonie, said he was not clear about what the state of emergency declaration would allow that could not be done without it.
The state of emergency would allow the county to enforce policies to a stricter extent if employees do not follow the recommendations, Bartlett said.
The resolution for the state of emergency is narrowly focused to allow temporary modifications to policies for employees, such as sick leave, said Nick Lange, Dunn County Corporation Counsel.
The resolution is focused on management of county staff and their interaction with the public and allows adjustments where necessary, he said.
The state of emergency would allow county management to provide opportunities for time off for employees when county policy might not allow time off, Lange said.
If Dunn County employees do not follow the policies, what will happen? asked John Calabrese, county board supervisor from Menomonie.
A failure to follow county policies can result in disciplinary action. The focus is on county employees making sure they are keeping the community safe when they are coming into county facilities, Lange said.
Refusing to comply with work rules can have consequences, he said.
The state of emergency resolution is well intended, Calabrese said, indicating that he would be willing to attend an emergency meeting of the county board if necessary.
Under state law, emergency meetings of a governing board can be called with two hours of notice.
The state of emergency would be indexed to rate of transmission in Dunn County. If the rate drops, then the state of emergency would no longer be in place, Lange said.
Rogers said he questioned whether the state of emergency would allow policies to be in place that could make it possible for employees to be fired for not being vaccinated against the virus.
The Dunn County Board, on a vote of 21 “no” to six “yes” declined to declare a state of emergency in Dunn County regarding the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the current Omicron surge.
Voting against the resolution were David Bartlett, Mike Kneer, Jody Kromrey, Tim Niehoff, Randy Prochnow, Tom Quinn, Mike Rogers, Ron Score, Gary Stene, Brian Johnson, Steve Jenson, Joe Hartung, Vaughn Hedlund, Larry Bjork, John Calabrese, Robert Bauer, Gary Bjork, Sheila Stori, Carl Vandermeulen, Jim Zons and Jim Anderson.
Voting in favor of the resolution were Donald Kuether, Tim Lienau, Charles Maves, Diane Morehouse, James Tripp and Ann Vogl.
County board supervisor Sarah Kennedy is deceased, and county board supervisor Kelly McCullough was absent from the meeting.
In other business, the Dunn County Board:
• Learned that the Red Cedar Watershed Conference in March has been cancelled because of COVID-19.
• Approved a two-year labor agreement with employees represented by the Powers of Arrest union. It’s a good contract that will help with the recruitment and retention of deputies, said Kevin Bygd, Dunn County Sheriff.
• Approved on a second reading an ordinance repealing and recreating Chapter 16 of the Dunn County code of ordinances pertaining to land division. The Planning, Resources and Development committee has been working on the ordinance for a year and held a public hearing on October 27, said Tom Quinn, who is chair of the PR&D committee. The ordinance deals with the division of parcels and is of particular concern to the unzoned townships, he said.
• Approved a resolution adopting a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) citizen participation plan. Dunn County plans to apply for CDBG grant funds for a housing study.
• Approved a resolution authorizing the submission of a CDBG application for the housing study. The Health and Human Services Board approved moving forward with the study in May, and the Dunn County Board approved moving forward in July, said Diane Morehouse, chair of the health and human services board. Menomonie and Boyceville have joined Dunn County in the study, which will yield information about housing supply, demand, population and housing needs, she said. The study will look at all of Dunn County, but there will be a “deeper dive” for Menomonie and Boyceville, Morehouse said.
• Approved rescinding the resolution that established the Department of Public Works, which included the highway department, facilities department and the transit department, and establishing separate departments again for the highway department, facilities department and transit department. There will be no change in the directors of the facilities and transit departments, Miller said. Establishing a separate highway department is intended to make it easier to recruit a highway commissioner, he said.
Cities have directors of public works who deal with roads, sewer and water, but since the county does not have a sewer and water utility, having a highway department may result in better candidates for the highway commissioner position, Miller said.