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By Sandy Schroth

Holt County leaders consider hiring HR firm


Courtesy graphic

Final route • NPPD's R Project route begins near Sutherland, heads north to Thedford, where it will connect at an existing substation, then move east to Holt County, covering approximately 225 miles. It will connect with a new substation near the Holt-Antelope-Wheeler county lines. Holt County supervisors are considering a road-use agreement with NPPD for construction, which will be done by Forbes Bros. Timberline Construction of Rapid City, South Dakota.

Holt County supervisors are considering the engagement of a human resources firm to help navigate employment issues.

A telephone conference was held with Chad Thies from Zelle Human Resource Solutions in Lincoln during the March 16 meeting at the courthouse in O'Neill. After hearing what the firm offered in services, chairman Bill Tielke asked Thies to submit a proposal.

Supervisor Steve Boshart estimated an annual cost of $36,000 to $40,000.

"It will be high," Tielke said. "But the thing is, if you add up the two or three lawsuits that we encounter a year..."

Tielke said road superintendent Gary Connot had suggested hiring an HR firm in the past, but the board had not given enough consideration to the benefits versus the cost.

"What would you do to keep us out of trouble?" Tielke asked Thies. "And, where would we go so instead of looking at what the dollar amount is, look at what the benefit is?"

According to Thies, the firm would update the county's employee handbook, making sure it is relevant and makes sense to employees and is compliant with state and federal law. They would handle issues that come up with employee job performance, as well as termination procedures when the issues can't be resolved. There is an option to handle hiring procedures as well.

"Our job for you in the employee relations spot is to take the pressure off you, take the compliance off you, and to stay out in front of things for you. Generally, what happens in things like that is everything channels through us. We take documentation to the table," Thies said. "We don't make any decisions; we just recommend things to you guys and then we act on the recommendations that you say are okay."

Supervisor Doug Frahm asked for a timeline to "get things up to speed."

"On terms of any employee issue, we can get up to speed on that in no time - within days," Thies said, estimating four to six weeks for handbook updates.

He said the firm typically works for an entity a minimum of six or 12 months, setting up a process that will last two or three years, but can stay longer. The firm also offers training opportunities for employees.

"This is probably not a thing that's paramount to you right now, but we do find that employees can only grow so much financially. What we like to do is give them opportunities for training and development, for learning and development.

That could be courses on leading the generations - there's five different generations that work for us right now...we give a menu of different trainings that we have that employees find a lot of value in, and it helps them also. For example, emotional intelligence is my favorite training that we do, and it really does give the employees the opportunity, I think, to grow as individuals and it also helps to leverage the trainings that we give them with their fellow employees and, quite frankly, with their home life as well," he said.

Tielke asked if foremen could contact the firm directly and if so, if there would be additional charges. Thies said there would be zero additional fees.

Connot said, "I think you're hitting right on some of the areas that we need some guidance and some direction on."

Weed superintendent Bill Babutzke and weed board members John Hammerlun, Dan Pribil and Dan Drueke presented an updated agreement between the weed and road departments.

Boshart questioned why the discussion was initiated in the middle of the budget year.

"Well it seemed like we had problems, year after year after year, all year long, about what we're doing here," said supervisor Bob Snider, who represents the supervisors on the weed board. "This board here was supposed to pay for the brush and tree killer and apparently they haven't got any money there. We ought to get that straightened out."

When asked, Babutzke said a bill for the product had not been presented to the supervisors. Discussion also included information that the weed department budget had been doubled to cover the cost of spray.

"It wasn't that we were going to double the budget and then we were going to turn around and pay extra on top of it. Part of doubling their budget was so they had enough money to do the trees," Tielke said.

"We're either going to spray them like you asked us to or we don't have the spray to do it," Hammerlun said. "In the first place, I don't believe the weed board has the authority to go out and buy equipment or spray. It is the landowners' responsibility."

Boshart replied, "You've got the authority because we've given (it to) you, because they won't do it. So, it's going to be your job to go out there and take those guys to court. Would you rather do that or spray the weeds?"

The second issue addressed Babutzke's work for the road department during the winter months.

"This board here, we agreed that it was up to Scott Keyes, he was in-between go man between," said Snider. "(He was) supposed to tell Bill (Babutzke) where he was supposed to spray, and he hasn't been doing that. Keyes told me about three months ago he didn't have time, he was going to leave it up to the grader operator. He was designated to do that and he's not doing it... His (Babutzke's) only job can't be just shredding brush and trees. If there's snow out there, he can't do that. Keyes should have something else for him to do...This board, we agreed that that was his job and he's not doing it."

The boards eventually agreed the county road department will continue to supply gas for the weed department and the weed department will spray all trees growing in the right of way. In addition, a yet to be determined road foreman will direct Babutzke's work between Oct. 15 and April 15, when he is not addressing noxious weeds.

Leaders discussed a move of driver's license testing locations and the state Department of Motor Vehicles expanding testing to twice a week, on Mondays and Tuesdays.

According to clerk Cathy Pavel, a previously discussed option for the Depot was off the table and some supervisors had indicated parking would be an issue at the courthouse annex.

She said the city would charge $35 a day rent for space at the community center, in addition to $50 per week cleaning costs, for a total of $120 a week or $5,760 annually. The county is currently paying $2,700 annually for one-day-a-week room rent at Cubbys.

Pavel said there were other options for the cleaning, including utilizing county staff.

"(County treasurer Connie Krotter) and I talked about taking turns."

The supervisors preferred an option to have a courthouse custodian clean the space each Tuesday afternoon. No action was taken.

The county leaders waded through two road-use agreements, with both to be revisited at future meetings.

They addressed proposed road use during construction of Nebraska Public Power District's new R-Project transmission line in the southeast part of the county. Forbes Bros. Timberline Construction will build the new transmission line from Gerald Gentleman Station near Sutherland to an existing substation east of Thedford, then east to a new substation in Holt County.

As project owner, NPPD is responsible for the road-use agreement with the county. It was discussed via speaker phone with Paul Brune, senior project manager for NPPD.

County officials asked for identification of secondary roads expected to be used, along with specific segments of 846 Road, 506, 507 and 508 avenues.

The supervisors had issues with a clause, "under no circumstances will NPPD be responsible for or liable for any accident, injury, torte or other theory of liability to any third parties solely by virtue of this agreement," opining the entire paragraph should be removed.

"I take issue with that - no liability whatsoever," said Frahm. "What if you cause a fire and it burns up somebody's bale yard? There's got to be some kind of liability there."

Brune responded NPPD hand imposed liability insurance requirements on Forbes Bros. He offered to provide documentation.

"They are very well insured, by our requirements or else we wouldn't have hired them," he said.

Frahm also asked if NPPD would consider leaving some driveways to tower sites in place, at the request of the county board or landowners. Brune indicated environmental permits granted through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would not allow all to be left, but NPPD would consider one or two requests when the project is finished.

In answer to supervisor questions regarding bonds for subcontractors, Brune said they are held to the same insurance requirements as Forbes Bros. He said NPPD had not supported establishing bonds in the past, and "so far" it had been worked out with other counties.

"I guess I see us a little different than a wind contractor. They are going to be here and gone, we're part of the state of Nebraska....We're not going to ride off into the sunset when we're done building. We serve the city of O'Neill, rural electric – we're part of the state here," he said.

At conversation's end, Brune agreed to have NPPD attorneys re-evaluate the issues raised by the county leaders, including identification of secondary roads, a 48-hour notification prior to use of secondary roads not listed in the agreement, re-evaluating language in the liability paragraph and establishment of a line of credit, using the county's formula of $50 per mile of gravel roads and $300,000 per mile of asphalt roads included in the agreement.

The proposal will be revisited at a later meeting.

Brune also informed the county officials that NPPD crews would handle relocation of local transmission lines in the path of the new line and agreed to include Connot in any meetings that related to Holt County roads.

"I would anticipate maybe two to three weeks out, the NPPD crews out of O'Neill there and some of the other areas will start going out to move those lines from one side of the road to the other, bury some, some will be overhead," he said. "With the virus stuff going around and some of the restrictions, I'm not sure that's going to happen just yet, but that was kind of our initial plan. I believe all that work is along 846 Road."

TC Energy representatives, including Robert Latimer and Denisha Cummings of Omaha and Omaha attorneys Ronald Comes and Patrick Pepper from McGrath North Law Firm, faced the supervisors as they analyzed the "Domina" road-haul agreement.

Boshart took the head seat as Tielke recused himself due to a declared conflict of interest.

The acting chair was undecided how to proceed with the agreement at hand, placed on the agenda by Holt County attorney Brent Kelly. The board had spent nearly two hours at a February meeting, reviewing a road-haul agreement brought to the table by TCE, paragraph by paragraph, despite having the new agreement drafted by Omaha attorney Dave Domina in hand. Domina was hired by the county officials Oct. 31, 2019, to negotiate a road-haul agreement with TC Energy.

"I believe the board voted 4-2 to go with a road-haul agreement from Domina Law Firm, and I believe that's the one we ought to be discussing. I think we need to go through it paragraph by paragraph like we did the other one," said supervisor Doug Frahm.

Supervisors Don Butterfield, Snider and Don Hahlbeck agreed. Darrin Paxton did not indicate a preference.

Addressing the TCE officials, Boshart said, "We can do story time like we did last time, go paragraph by paragraph, but I'm going to turn it over to you guys and you can say what you've got there."

He further stated, "This is the Domina one and Ron (Comes) told me before that there's just so much markups in here that they can't agree to."

Latimer and Comes continued to push for the revised "Grand Prairie" version that had been revised after the February meeting, alleging Domina would not talk to therm.

"I told you we don't want to go with the Grand Prairie (agreement)," said Butterfield. "It's not the same ball of wax."

He asked if the proposed agreements could be combined, a suggestion Frahm supported. Snider and Hahlbech also agreed.

"There's some things some of us want, other things we don't care about," Frahm said "It looks like you could work together to come up with something. Work it out. You guys say you won't work with Domina Law Firm. We hired them. Sorry we voted for them, we hired them. Right now that's the way it stands and we can't change that. You guys take these two, work it out,"

Kelly agreed to work with the TCE attorneys. Although Boshart asked his peers to determine a definitive timeline, Kelly proposed an update at the next meeting.

"I want you guys to say you' have an agreement' or say 'we can't agree' within 30 days. You got to have a deadline," Boshart said. "If we don't get this done, they are just going to come in and use the roads, they have already said they would."

The supervisors unanimously approved the purchase of a 2018 six-wheel-drive motorgrader, at a cost of $276,500, through the Sourcewell bid process. Purchase of a grader is included in the current year's budget. It will be designated to Butterfield's District 7, as part of the county's replacement rotation schedule.

The purchase price includes a five-year, 5,000-hour comprehensive warranty, followed by 24-month 2,000-hour powertrain and hydraulics warranty, with wing, front lift group, joy stick, slope control, snowplow lights, front fenders, auxiliary valve, and is "top-con" ready.

Dathan Peters with Murphy Tractor in Grand Island was in attendance to discuss manufacturer "re-life" for two machines. The current District 7 machine is the oldest in the fleet, according to Connot, and a 2011 machine that is on the rotation schedule two years out, in Frahm's District 5, has issues with some of the coolants disappearing and elevated engine oil consumption.

Connot said, "We were startled a little bit when it came to the repair costs."

No decision was reached for the ailing District 5 machine, with a repair cost of $83,000. Connot said the officials may need to consider use of one of two spare machines.

Amy Timmerman, University of Nebraska -Lincoln Extension educator, updated the supervisors on recommendations from UNL Extension regarding COVID-19.

She said extension staff would not be holding face-to-face meetings nor trainings until at least May 9. All training until then will be done online - including chemigation and pesticide certification. In addition, all out-of-state travel had been suspended as well as overnight travel in Nebraska and provisions were in place for the educators to work from home. She asked for direction for the county-paid extension office staff member. Timmerman was directed, as department head, to make the call.

She also announced Nebraska Forest Service plans to place a forester in O'Neill. The forester will focus on cedar tree management and work with shelterbelt renovations, according to Timmerman.

The supervisors approved claim payments from various funds.

Payouts included $7,457.95 from the Holt County Visitor's Promotion Fund. Awards included $3,500 to the Ewing Young Members Club for Funfest, $2,500 to Holt County Ag Society for fair ads; $1,000 to Atkinson Fire & Rescue for Party in the Park; $368 to Norfolk Area Shopper for Summer Fun; and $89.95 to Power Pages for advertising.

Awards from the Holt County Visitor's Improvement Fund were $30,000 to the ag society for fairground improvements and $936.47 to the O'Neill Chamber of Commerce for contract labor.

In other business, the supervisors:

~Approved zoning applications filed by Tannon Dvorak, on an irregular tract southwest of Atkinson, and by Brent Kelly for 3KB Investments, on two irregular tracts southeast of Atkinson;

~Approved contracting the Nebraska auditor of Public Accounts to conduct the annual fiscal audit at a cost of $16,000;

~Accepted a negotiated "confession of judgement" between the county and to O'Neill Lodging resolve an appeal by reducing valuation from $2,937,255.00 to $2,792,168 and forward to the Tax Equalization and Review Commission, as advised by assessor Tim Wallinger; and

~Opened oil bids and accepted low bid submitted by Jebro in Sioux City, Iowa. Bids were also received from Flint Hills in Omaha.


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