ERIE – Neosho County Commissioners pressed developers of the Neosho Ridge wind electricity generation project and an engineer Thursday evening on road improvements in the southwest part of the county.
Commissioner David Orr said project site manager Jason Martindale and engineer Tanner Yost with the engineering firm Kirkham Michael need a comprehensive plan at the commission’s next meeting to address road problems in the project area.
The issue came up Thursday evening from project critic and area resident Dustie Elsworth who said the developer, Apex Clean Energy, is not living up to its road maintenance agreement with the county.
Elsworth pointed to an engineering report done before Kirkham Michael was hired to oversee the project. That report listed 42 bridges, culverts and other road structures the company said should be avoided during the construction.
Elsworth said some of those problem areas are being used and upgrades to correct the problems should have been done before construction started.
“Tomorrow if something falls apart and kills somebody, you can’t fix it in 30 days,” he said.
Orr suggested that if Apex does not correct the problems, the county might shut the roads to fix them and the Neosho Ridge project would be delayed.
The commission signed the road maintenance agreement in June and the report was done in August. Yost said Kirkham Michael piggy-backed off of the report, and Orr and Commissioner Gail Klaassen said they thought the issues had already been signed-off.
Elsworth cited other issues in the agreement, including aggregate recommendations on 80th Road.
“This contract is not being followed,” he said. “We’re not even following simple things in our contracts.”
Another problem he mentioned is that 80th Road is not being maintained the way it had been. Elsworth said the county graded it every two to three weeks, but the wind project developer has not followed that schedule.
“The county is doing no maintenance whatsoever,” he said.
Martindale said not all of the improvements can be done, which is why the company has requested an additional 13 miles of roads be included on the delivery routes to the windmill construction sites.
The project plans to build 139 wind-powered electrical generators spread over more than 60 square miles.
Martindale said the company would do upgrades before the windmill parts are delivered.
Resident LeRoy Burk, speaking during the public commentary, said he appreciated the commission addressing the road use and said it accepts liability.
“We don’t want to let them off the hook,” he said. “The cat’s out of the bag now.”
People at the meeting also commented on Thursday’s incident where a wide-load transport hauling a rock crusher became stuck attempting a turn at Lyons and 70th Roads.
Elsworth said Apex did not receive advance notice of the transport and he does not believe the company did not know.
Orr said the county should file a claim on the transport contractor for damage to the road where the truck became high-centered.
“I don’t know why he even attempted that turn,” Orr said.
Resident and critic Dale Jeffrey said during public comments that a transport truck passed his house a day earlier and off-loaded a crusher before attempting a turn.
Klaassen said she had heard some road signs had been removed, causing truck drivers to become lost. Road and Bridge Director Mike Brown said signs for the 911 system are on paved roads but not county-wide on gravel roads.
Commissioners also talked with Yost and Martindale about Kirkham Michael’s inspections of the project route and its billing.
Yost said his company has inspected 31 structures on the additional 13 miles that Apex has requested. He said this is the first time the company has worked part-time, doing pre-construction and post-construction inspections rather than full-time during the entire project.
Yost said the company will use up an allocated 60 days of work by the end of next week, with an additional 15 to 20 days available through the end of 2020.
Orr questioned how much the firm would charge to do additional work.
“If we made a mistake in the amount of dollars, what’s it going to take to do it your way?” he asked.
Klaassen said she would prefer to see Kirkham Michael “on the ground” until the end of December 2019.
The wind project also came up as part of discussion over a road grader.
During a bid opening, Commissioner Paul Westhoff brought up an e-mail between Orr and an Apex negotiating whether the company’s payment in lieu of taxes would fund a road grader.
The bids opened Thursday were for financing of the $300,000 grader. Klaassen said the final PILOT agreement did not include the e-mail, and the county is not bound by it.
The commission accepted a bid from Bank of Commerce in Erie to finance the lease-purchase at 2.79 percent with a 30 percent residual balloon payment at the end of five years, provided the payments are annually instead of monthly. Other bidders were Home Savings Bank of Chanute, Exchange State Bank of St. Paul, Community National Bank of Chanute, Commercial Bank of Erie and Cat Finance from Foley Equipment.
In other business, commissioners also faced conflict Thursday evening over the courthouse Christmas party.
Commissioners rescinded a previous vote to close the courthouse during the dinner. Instead, the County Treasurer’s Office will remain open while other offices close.
Treasurer Sydney Ball requested her office be open, but Appraiser Bob McElroy wanted the entire courthouse to close. At the end, the two county officers shook hands.
This year’s Christmas party for courthouse employees will be 11:30 am to 1 pm Dec. 13.
Ball said her office has always remained open during the employee party for residents paying their taxes.
Sometimes, residents must also do business with the appraiser’s office to complete the transaction, and McElroy said they become irate if they have to wait until after the employee dinner. Ball said taxpayers also become irate if they come to Erie and find the courthouse closed.
Appraiser’s office employee Carla Rush is organizing and hosting the dinner.
Klaassen said Rush wants employees to be able to come together.
Westhoff suggested future Christmas parties be held after the courthouse closes at 4:30 pm. County Clerk Heather Elsworth suggested she will volunteer to act as “runner” to deal with the public.
Ball said tax statements go out around Thanksgiving, making December a tough time to schedule parties because of the increased taxpayer traffic. She suggested having a holiday party during the first two weeks of November.
Commissioners also discussed whether to take a holiday Monday, Dec. 23. County offices will be closed Tuesday, Dec. 24 and Wednesday, Dec. 25, and the county attorney said District Court will be closed Dec. 23.
Commissioners met with representatives of Advantage Computers and accepted an agreement and discussed a quote of $28,000 to replace and upgrade equipment.
Commissioners approved asking Ag Engineering Associates for a quote to open a new cell in the county landfill.
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