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News from the week of April 23, 2003

Looming state cuts have city scrambling for savings

No expenditure seemed too small or mundane to escape the scrutiny of City of Tracy bean counters Monday night.

An unusual 2 1/2 hour budget meeting involving city department heads and city council members ended with a discussion of whether the city-owned softball fields near North Star Modular Homes should have a dumpster or small garbage cans. The cans won out, saving the city an estimated $30 to $40 a month.

More sweeping—and higher ticket—money-saving measures were also hashed over. Virtually all city residents will be affected in some way by the proposed changes.

The Monday night budget discussion was sparked by the State of Minnesota's projected $4.2 billion shortfall over the next two years, and proposals to dramatically scale-back the amount of state aid that municipalities receive. A budget-balancing plan announced by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in February would reduce state aid to Tracy by $144,000 in 2003 and $274,000 in 2004.

Other budget plans announced by the DFL-controlled Senate and the Republican House would result in smaller state aid cuts. The state's final budget—and its impact to local government units like Tracy—won't be known until the legislature and governor agree on a budget bill. By law, a balanced budget must be in place by June 30.

To prepare for a "worst case" scenario, City Administrator Audrey Koopman instructed each department head to prepare a budget with a 10% reduction in spending for this year. The informal Monday night "work session" was held to discuss the departmental plans, as well as Koopman's administrative recommendations to the council.

New science curriculum is $65,000 investment

Elementary roof upgrades have $68,000 cost

The District 417 school board has approved a new district-wide science curriculum.

High school and elementary science teachers presented information on the series that were looked at and gave their recommendations at the March 10 board meeting.

Elementary teachers had unanimously recommended the Scott Foresman science series. The total cost for this series is approximately $27,000. This includes supplemental kits for each grade level.

The new junior high science and biology series will be from Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, and the new chemistry and physics series will be from Glencoe. The total cost for the new high school textbooks will be about $19,000.

Also included in the new curriculum cost are technology materials requested by high school teachers. These items include a laser disc player, technology lab for processing DNA, videos, and CD-ROMs.

The total estimated cost for the new elementary and high school curriculum and supplemental equipment is approximately $65,000. It was originally estimated that the cost would be between $65,000 and $80,000.

Prison groundwork continues

The possibility of Tracy becoming home to a large corrections facility continues to be studied by city leaders.

"It is important that we get our homework done," Community Development Director Robert Gervais told members of the Tracy Economic Development Authority Friday.

The Minnesota legislature is dealing with two bills that could pave the way for the construction of a 600 to 800 bed corrections facility for short-term offenders. The bills would give the Minnesota Department of Corrections and counties the authority to send inmates to privately-operated prisons.

If the bills pass, a selection committee would be established to select a site for the new facility. Communities could then submit proposals to become the host city.

Gervais told EDA members that he feels Tracy has a realistic chance of being selected, if Tracy decides to pursue the idea. As far as he is aware, Tracy is one of five communities that has expressed an interest in attracting the prison.

The host city would have to provide at least 40 acres of land. Other perks—such as reduced utility rates and tax breaks—might also need to be offered.

Tim Byrne, an EDA member who also serves on the city council, said the council needs to decide soon what it is willing to offer. Breaks on real estate taxes and utility rates, he said, might be more important to a company coming into Tracy than an initial donation of land.

Senator hopes Pawlenty tax pledge will soften

Senator Jim Vickerman (DFL-Tracy) is optimistic that the legislature and the governor will reach a budget-balancing agreement without the need for a special session.

"We will find a solution because we have to, and that's all there's to it," the senator said, speaking at a Kiwanis luncheon Thursday. Vickerman, home from the Easter legislative break, said he didn't see any reason for the legislature to not reach a budget agreement during its regular session, scheduled to end in late May.

"What good is another month (special session) going to do? The (budget) problem is not going to go away."

Vickerman said that most people don't seem to realize the magnitude of the $4.2 billion shortfall that is projected for state government over the next two years.

"That's a lot of zeros."

The shortfall, he said, is certain to lead to "a significant downsizing" in state government. For example, Vickerman said that 400 state employees are no longer going to have their cell telephones paid for by the state.

"We figure that for what they are being paid, they can pay for their own cell phones."

However, Vickerman said that he, and the DFL majority caucus in the Senate, do not believe that the entire $4.2 billion shortfall can be made up with spending cuts. Some revenue increases, including an income tax increase on upper-income people, will be necessary, the senator said.

Eastview house sold

New EDA project suggested for rambler house

A purchase agreement has been reached for the sale of the Tracy Economic Development Authority's "spec" house in the Eastview Addition.

A $95,500 offer from Ed and Mary Kortuem was accepted for the Sunrise Drive split-level. Closing is expected by May 16.

The house, built with financing from the Southwest Housing Partnership, has been for sale since November of 2001. The EDA recently reduced the price on the house from $109,500 to $99,500 in an effort to move the house. The house had been appraised at $112,000.

Tracy Economic Development Authority members reviewed the terms of the sale Friday. Robert Gervais, Tracy community development director, said that another potential buyer looked at the house later and also expressed interest. That party may be a prospect to build a similar house in Tracy, he indicated.

Gervais said that the housing partnership also has a plan in which the EDA could build a rambler in the Eastview Addition on an advance sale basis. He said that during the period when the EDA was marketing the split-level, most prospects expressed a preference for a home on one-level.

Four Seasons marks 20th

Twenty years?

For Marlene Buck, the years at Four Seasons have flown by as quickly as changing fashions.

"It doesn't seem possible," the veteran Tracy businesswoman said last week, as her store celebrated its 20th year in business.

Disco was king and Ronald Reagan was serving his first term in the White House when Four Seasons opened its doors in the spring of 1983.

It was a risky time for new business ventures. The early 1980s "farm crisis" was at its height. Real estate values had plummeted. Interest rates for borrowers approached 20%. Patrons at the Tracy Farmers Elevator confronted daunting financial losses from a manager's unauthorized grain speculation.

In downtown Tracy, retail anchor JC Penney announced plans to close its store.

Nonetheless, Marlene and Al Buck decided to make something good out of a bad situation.

"It was really Al's idea," Marlene said. 'I remember Al saying, 'I think we could do this.' I wasn't so sure. "

Al Buck's idea was to start a new independent department store in the building being vacated by Penney's. Marlene, who had worked for Penney's since 1963 and already knew the business, would manage day-to-day operations. Al, a business teacher at Tracy Area High School, would provide additional expertise and help run the store after school and on weekends. Two other former Penney's employees, Marilyn Carlson and Joanne Ruebsam, would also assist.

"Al just hated the idea of Tracy being without a department store," Marlene said. She recalls also that her husband was confident that the new store would be successful.