Cook County logo. WTIP file photo
WTIP file photo

County board adopts short-term rental resolution, talks YMCA funding

There was a meeting of the Cook County Board of Commissioners Tuesday, Feb. 11. The meeting opened with a public comment period. There were numerous comments about the proposed Border to Border Touring Route during this week’s meeting. Local resident Mike Hofer said he remains concerned about the route, suggesting that Cook County wait to see how the B2B works in other counties before taking any action on the route locally.

Grand Marais resident Bonnie Fairchild also suggested the county not support the B2B. She called it “sacrilege” to consider allowing the B2B in Cook County. A motorized touring route does not align with Fairchild’s vision of the county, she said. Quiet sports like canoeing and the offerings of North House Folk School are more attune to the county, according to Fairchild.

Karen Blackburn is the board chair for the Cook County Chamber of Commerce. She spoke about the county’s ongoing discussion regarding tax classification for short-term rentals. A resolution the county and chamber have been working hard on should benefit business owners and all aspects of the county, Blackburn suggested.

Local business owners Teri Chilefone and James Coleman also spoke about the proposed changes to the short-term rental tax classification. If short-term rentals are classified as commercial properties, many local residents, including small business owners, will be impacted by changes to the tax classification for short-term rentals, Chilefone said.

Coleman, who is a co-owner of the Mountain Inn located in Lutsen, echoed those sentiments, saying that the shoulder seasons for tourists visiting Cook County would be impacted if tax rates go up too much too quickly for short-term rentals.

Others speaking about the proposed changes to the short-term rental tax classification include Sam Hedstrom and Mike Smeja. For his part, Smeja encouraged the board to increase the taxes on short-term rental properties.

Border to Border and Sheriff Letter

To start the regular portion of Tuesday’s meeting, Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen addressed the commissioners about the Border to Border Touring Route and a letter he sent in late December 2019 regarding concerns he has associated with the B2B.

The question of how many visitors the county can handle, most specifically the sheriff’s department, was brought to the forefront of the discussion in the letter Eliasen sent to the commissioners and various county staff. Since the letter became public, Eliasen has said that he is not specifically opposed to the B2B route, but just wanted to share some concerns about the overall number of people who visit Cook County and impacts it has on his department and potentially his budget.

Commissioner Heidi Doo-Kirk said the B2B touring route has created an “us versus them” mentality for many local residents, property owners and those who visit the area. She says people who recreate outdoors on motorized vehicles are being labeled as people who flick cigarettes into the woods from their vehicles and could ultimately start a forest fire. Doo-Kirk then pointed out that the most recent forest fires in Cook County were started by campers in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and tourists, not by people in motorized vehicles.

Commissioner Dave Mills thanked the sheriff for the letter and follow up discussion. Mills also said it’s important that the county board not get involved with the ‘us versus them’ discussion that has cropped up in the B2B rhetoric. Mills said the commissioners needs to remain objective as they think about the future of the B2B in Cook County.

The board is expected to resume discussion in an official capacity on the Border to Border motorized touring route in the near future.

The DNR staff involved with the B2B, including Andrew Brown, are expected to attend the next committee of the whole meeting for the county. That discussion is scheduled for next Tuesday, Feb. 18.

Short-term rentals
The topic of short-term rental tax classification was addressed next on the agenda. After many hours of discussion on the topic of short-term rental tax classification during recent weeks, the county board passed a resolution that will be sent to the Capitol in St. Paul. The resolution that passed suggest three different outcomes, according to Cook County Assessor Bob Thompson.

The first was a proposal that a new classification be created, with rates that are equal to the current residential rate of 1.25 percent, and higher for properties valued over $275,000, Thompson told WTIP Tuesday afternoon.

The second scenario simply said a new classification that’s taxed somewhere between the seasonal recreation and commercial tax rates.

The final proposal is to define them as the existing residential non-homestead classification.

Cook County Chamber of Commerce Director Jim Boyd supported the resolution. Meanwhile, it will be “sausage making” in St. Paul when it comes to moving this forward, Boyd said, while acknowledging the great work that went into making the resolution that passed Tuesday.

Board Chair Myron Bursheim said State Sen. Tom Bakk is interested in the resolution and the county board’s stance on the issue. The resolution now heads to St. Paul where Bakk and other elected officials at the state level will discuss making it law.

YMCA Maintenance Update

To close out the busy meeting, Interim County Administrator Rena Rogers shared an update on maintenance and upkeep at the county-owned YMCA building in Grand Marais. Rogers said the quality and consistency of cleaning services has been a contentious issue between the YMCA and the county. Rogers said that the bottom line is the level of service is not meeting expectations even though the county has allocated resources to the effort.

Meanwhile, the local school district has presented an opportunity to the county to take over this responsibility at the cost of providing the resources to do the work. Rogers said the proposal includes daily cleaning for all days the YMCA facility is open, as well as emergency custodial services and regular facility checks during the weekday hours.

Ultimately, according to Rogers, this action to contract with the school district reduces costs to the county and ensures a more consistent level of service. The board agreed and opted to support this arrangement.

The ISD 166 School Board still needs to approve the county-approved measure regarding maintenance at the YMCA. The next meeting of the school board is Thursday, Feb. 27.

The audio below is an interview with WTIP’s Joe Friedrichs and Rogers about the most recent meeting of the Cook County Board of Commissioners.