WASECA — Last week Waseca and Steele counties announced the state had capitulated to their demands in regards to turning back part of old Highway 14.
On Tuesday, Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle sent out a sharply worded statement saying the state will not sign the agreement because the counties returned a document that was different than what the state had agreed to.
“The document sent back to us by both county boards was not the document to which we agreed. It contained language that we had not approved, and MnDOT was not given the chance to review that document before it went to the county boards.”
The latest dust-up involves a 19-mile stretch of former Highway 14 between Janesville and Owatonna. When the new Highway 14 was built, state law called for the old state highway to be turned back to the counties. But the two counties said MnDOT's offer of paying up to $13 million to reconstruct the road before turning it over to the counties was insufficient.
The state and counties could not come to an agreement on funding levels, so in December of 2012 the state turned the road over to the counties without any turnback funding. The counties then sued MnDOT.
Since then, the two sides have been trying to work out a negotiated agreement and both sides said they had reached a tentative deal in October.
Last week the counties announced they had approved an agreement in which they said MnDOT had agreed to pay the entire amount for complete renovation of the highway.
But in his statement, Zelle said that is not at all what MnDOT agreed to.
"Under the proposed settlement, MnDOT would not provide funding to the counties. Instead, MnDOT would reacquire control of the roadway, perform agreed-on work to preserve the roadway for the counties, and then turn the roadway back over to the counties," the statement from Zelle said.
“This has been a long and drawn out process,” Zelle said. “We are very close to reaching an agreement and hoped to have done so by now. We have worked hard to satisfy the county demands while also ensuring the interests of the state are protected. Certainly, avoiding a year of court hearings is in the best interest of all taxpayers.”
Zelle said that if the counties and MnDOT are not able to reach a settlement agreement soon, court hearings in the litigation will resume in the coming weeks.
New Ulm attorney Justin Weinberg, who represents the counties in the dispute, said Tuesday that he was surprised by the letter from the state.
"We're a bit stunned by this because we're not sure what language in that agreement they are saying they didn't agree to."
Weinberg said the two counties are trying to hold special meetings on Friday to see how to proceed. He said they continue to hope for a negotiated settlement.