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COL 'Wheelage' tax being considered by counties

ST. PAUL -- Counties looking for alternative ways to pay for roads and bridges are considering a $5-per-vehicle tax, known as a wheelage tax, which is expected to raise about $10 million annually in the metro area.

Supporters say the tax is needed to ease the burden on property taxes, which have soared to help pay for roads and bridges. According to state law, for every dollar raised from the wheelage tax, property taxes must be lowered by the same amount.

The wheelage tax law, written in 1972, gives metro area counties -- Ramsey, Hennepin, Anoka, Washington, Dakota, Scott and Carver -- the right to impose the tax and dedicate the funds for transportation improvements.

Other sources of highway funds have evaporated, county officials said.

Benton County moves ahead on land use plan

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FOLEY, Minn. -- The Benton County Commissioners and Department of Development staff will hold two public meetings before taking action on the county's Comprehensive Land Use Plan.

The aim is to approve a revised Comprehensive Land Use Plan during the commissioners' meeting Dec. 8. A public hearing to gather input will be held Nov. 10 at 7 p.m.

In summary information, the larger area of the county where agriculture is considered the primary land use makes up most of Langola, Graham, Alberta, Mayhew Lake, Gilmanton, Maywood, Glendorado, St. George, and parts of Minden and Watab townships.

Dike system in final phase of construction

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- A $400 million dike system to protect this area from the Red River is entering its final phase of construction.

Army Corps of Engineers contractors are preparing the ground for earthen levees in neighboring East Grand Forks, Minn. Contractors also plan to build two new pump stations, a flood wall, a gated outlet and raise part of a street by about 3 feet.

The dike system is to be finished by the end of 2006, a little more than five years after it started in August 2001. The project grew out of the Red River flood disaster in 1997, when the river overwhelmed existing dikes and forced residents of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks to leave their homes.

The third phase is scheduled for completion next spring, though it could be delayed by holdups in acquiring property.

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MDA focuses on milk drinking in schools

PAYNESVILLE, Minn. -- Improving the school milk drinking experience for students is a top priority for the Midwest Dairy Association which manages the dairy checkoff program for nine states.

"Research tells us people who consume milk and dairy products as children are more likely to consume milk and dairy products as adults,'' said Mel Kunstleben, a Paynesville dairy producer and chairman of the Midwest Dairy Association.

Checkoff-funded research has shown kids will drink about 18 percent more milk if white and multiple-flavored milk is offered in contemporary plastic packaging, ice-cold and in high visibility displays, Kunstleben said.

DNR puts more emphasis on roadside habitat

ST. PAUL -- The Department of Natural Resources is putting more emphasis on roadside habitat to help the pheasant and songbird population. The agency has hired Tom Keefe to head its new Roadsides for Wildlife Program.

"The program will focus on two primary objectives,'' Keefe said. "The first is to increase the use of native grasses in right-of-ways. The second is to decrease mowing, especially during those times when a delay can be helpful to pheasant and songbird populations.''

In 2004, the Legislature directed the DNR, the Department of Transportation and other agencies to recommend ways to promote wildlife habitat within the right-of-way of public roads in 2005.

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MDA employees moving to new offices

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota Department of Agriculture employees are moving into new buildings on the Capitol complex in St. Paul. The 430-person agency will move in three phases, with the last in early December.

The new headquarters for both MDA and the Minnesota Department of Health will be in the Orville L. Freeman Office Building, named in honor of former U.S. ag secretary Orville Freeman.

The building is located just south of University Avenue on Roberts Street. MDA's new mailing address will be 625 Robert Street North, St. Paul, MN 55155-2538.

Zebra mussels discovered in Rice Lake

BRAINERD, Minn. -- Zebra mussels have been discovered in Rice Lake near Brainerd. A search found more zebra mussels, which is a concern because Rice Lake is an impoundment of the Mississippi River.

"This discovery is extremely serious for the river,'' said Gary Montz, zebra mussel coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources. "The presence of this invasive species poses a major risk to the river downstream. It is likely that zebra mussels have become established in other areas of the river or adjacent backwaters that we haven't discovered yet.''

Otter Tail gets no federal disaster funds

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. -- Otter Tail County will get $500,000 in state aid to help repair damage from a June storm, but not a dime in federal relief, officials said.

The county and others in the area were unable to reach a $5.6 million damage threshold necessary for federal aid. The four-county region reached $4.2 million, and county officials were hoping Gov. Tim Pawlenty would submit the request to the feds anyway. He didn't.

"I am disappointed, but not surprised," said Tiny Holm, the county's director of safety and emergency.

Holm said if the county had been declared part of a national disaster area after the June 20 storm, the federal government would have picked up 75 percent of the county's total debt.

Extension team wins dean, director's award

ST. PAUL -- A team of Extension educators that helped Minnesota communities learn how to live side-by-side with "big box'' retailers has received an award.

The Retail Analysis and Development Program Team received the Dean and Director's Distinguished Team Award from the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

The 13 U of M team members worked with faculty members from Iowa State University, the Minnesota Department of Revenue and the Blandin Foundation.

Regional Extension educators on the team include Lisa Hinz, Farmington; David Nelson, Morris; Ryan Pesch, Fergus Falls; Liz Templin, Andover; and Bruce Schwartau, Rochester. The award was presented at Extension's Fall Conference in Brooklyn Center.

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