By Anna Jauhola
Over the last 20-plus years, Kittson County Engineer Kelly Bengtson has credited his employees and office staff for his success in the position. He recently retired from the position he took in 1997 and will be re-entering the private sector.
The 1976 Hallock High School graduate didn’t think he’d come home to a lifetime career, but after his father died suddenly in 1984, he returned to help his mother with the family farm.
Prior to his return, Bengtson worked at Deere and Company in Waterloo, Iowa. To supplement his income in Kittson County and continue with his engineering background, Bengtson took a part-time job at the highway department drawing road plans and doing dirt calculations and balancing for David Olsonawski. When the 1985 farm bill came through, he began working for the Kittson County Soil and Water Conservation District.
When Craig Kvale left as county engineer, Bengtson threw his hat in the ring, despite not having the engineering license required for the job. The county board of commissioners at the time gave him one year to obtain the license.
“It was challenging to study for this test with three little children running around,” Bengtson said. “But the county hired me as the highway administrator or department manager until I passed my test in 1998.”
The challenges began immediately as several people had retired or moved on. One beloved employee, Mark Blomquist, had tragically died in a home accident as well, which was the first spot Bengtson had to fill.
“He was our maintenance foreman and a really good employee,” Bengtson said of Blomquist.
Shawn Anderson took that position and Jim Thompson was hired as assistant foreman to replace Anderson.
Aside from the tough hiring decisions, Bengtson said funding, as well as annual flooding and snow events have been his largest challenges.
“Funding is an issue because of low population and low traffic counts,” he said. “We have to market our needs based on heavy commercial traffic. Kittson County is in the top 10 for tons of agricultural production annually in the state.”
This designation has helped Bengtson and his colleagues successfully secure funds more often than not for projects and equipment. This has been particularly important in years with extreme snowfall, allowing the purchase of new equipment. The public always wants plowed roads to ensure kids get to school, people arrive safely to work and businesses are able to operate.
“Plows are generally designed to be on pavement but if you don’t allow them to jump onto gravel, you’re not going to satisfy demand,” Bengtson said. “Some counties don’t allow it because of stones flying around and getting into hydraulic lines underneath. But we’ve done things to protect our units with some screens and deflection plates.”
The plows don’t always go on gravel, but Bengtson agreed to it to ensure those clear roads during hard winters and after bad storms.
Spring flooding is always a whole other ballgame. Not only is the entire highway department in overdrive for months on end, Bengtson and his staff are bogged down with governmental paperwork.
“It takes away from our daily needs with road construction, bridge safety inspections and road maintenance,” Bengtson said. “It’s very time-consuming. It’s costly. So, you’re not only doing the physical part of it, but then we’re dealing with the government part of applying for refunds through FEMA.”
This isn’t something anyone just learns in school, either. Bengtson found out the hard way the difficulties of dealing with procuring refunds for work put in during floods. First, he learned the system of applying on paper. He credits his former county accountant, Barb O’Hara, for her skills with handling government paperwork. She received the nickname “the FEMA chick” for her cool and concise work in dealing with the federal agency.
“She never got angry, she just took the paperwork and put it in the file, and did it,” Bengtson said. “When it was all done, we’d review it and it was always right. We’d sign it and send it in.”
Then, in 2018, the Federal Emergency Management Agency created a digital portal to submit all paperwork, pictures, bills, timecards, GPS coordinates and so on.
“We were told it would be simpler, easier, because it was going to be on their website,” Bengtson said. “The people we started working with, their contract expired in six weeks and then we had to deal with new people. Then we started all over again.”
From the 2019 spring flood, the county still hasn’t received its reimbursements for more than $400,000 of debris cleanup and regraveling. They have, however, received $7,800 for putting up barricades and closing roads.
Throughout the years, Bengtson said working with the great staff throughout the highway department has been the most rewarding – from the front office to the road maintenance crews. He has also enjoyed working with the county board of commissioners and developing relationships so they understand the necessities within the highway department. Through that, he said his crews have gotten really good equipment upgrades including an additional motor grader and operator, and new snow plow units.
Aside from managing the department’s employees, the highway engineer also manages the highway system and bridge safety inspection program, submits an annual budget and seeks out additional funding. Each year, the highway department’s funding comes from state aid money through the gas tax. However, that doesn’t always cover everything that needs to be done.
“We get additional funding opportunities through federal highway funds, which is also part of the federal gas tax distribution,” Bengtson said. “But we don’t receive that as an equal distribution, we have to compete for that.”
Bengtson has worked on the improvement of many roads and bridges over the years, including the largest project of his career – the mill and overlay of County Road 10 east of Highway 59 by Lake Bronson last year. He has enjoyed remaining as active as possible in the everyday workings of the highway department, including visiting construction sites and communicating with his employees on needs throughout the department.
But he won’t miss the politics involved with the county engineer position.
He is excited to start his new job as a bridge and pavement engineering specialist for Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute at North Dakota State University in Fargo. UGPTI works with North Dakota Department of Transportation, counties and townships, and some Minnesota counties regarding pavement decisions and some bridge questions.
He had been offered the same position a few years ago, but said the time wasn’t right. After 20 years as county engineer, Bengtson can retire at the Rule of 90 and feels lucky he can also continue to work.
“I could just be retired, but everybody I’ve talked to who’s retired, they’re all bored,” Bengtson said. “And I don’t want to be bored, I want to be busy.”
He and his wife, Trina, will keep their residence in rural Hallock, but Bengtson will live in Fargo during the week.
“I’m looking forward to the change and the challenge. It’s going to be new, but I think I’m ready for it,” he said.