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News from the week of December 29, 2004

Lakes sewer plan dealt setback
Septic system inspections planned in spring

By Val Scherbart Quist

The Murray County Board of Commissioners failed to pass a motion last week that would have allowed the Lake Shetek area sewer project to move forward.

The motion, which was to approve funding for the project, required a four-fifths vote. Three commissioners—Kevin Anderson, Lyle Onken, and Al Gertsema—voted in favor, while Steve Johnson and William Sauer voted against the motion.

The commissioners voted on the issue at an improvement hearing Tuesday, Dec. 21, despite efforts by a group called Residents Opposed to the Centralized Sewer (ROCS). On Monday, the group attempted to get a restraining order to prevent the improvement hearing from taking place, said Murray County Water Resources Director Chris Hansen. The motion was denied.

The board could bring the issue to another vote, if it is done within the next six months, said Hansen.

Johnson said he had several reasons for voting against funding the project.

“I’ve always thought it was too high priced,” he said.

He said he was not opposed to the general idea of a centralized sewer. But after weighing the pros and cons of the issue, he found too many issues with the centralized sewer system that was proposed.

“I think a centralized sewer is probably a good thing,” he said. “But I don’t think it was engineered properly.”

Johnson said he is concerned that, if the state would make a centralized sewer system mandatory, zero interest funding that was received for this project will no longer be available. He also has concern for those homeowners whose systems are failing.

“The people I feel sorry for are the people with the small lots who are not going to be able to put in a new system, because I know there are failing systems out there by the hundreds,” he said. “They will have to go to holding tanks.”

Gertsema said that was the main reason he voted in favor of funding for the centralized sewer.

“There are a lot of people out there who won’t be able to have a regular septic system,” he said. “I think all people should have the right to a good sewer system.”

He said the cost of the project, which would have been paid for by property owners over approximately 30 years, is not unlike street, sewer, or other projects that take place in cities on a regular basis.

“It costs money, and it’s hard for both sides,” he said. “There are some people who say that they can’t afford it, but if it’s over a 30-year period, it’s not that bad.”

Despite his concerns, Gertsema said he is confident that sewer improvements in the Lake Shetek area will move along smoothly.

He said he is not sure at this point if the board of commissioners will reconsider the issue.

“It could be brought back up, but I’m not sure that’s going to happen,” he said. “We have two new commissioners coming on, so we will have to play it by ear and see what they think about it.”

The issue has been a hot topic in the region for the past few years.

Gertsema said he heard from quite a few people who were in favor of the system, and also from those who were against it.

“It’s a good thing,” he said. “People talk and they have a right to express their opinions, and I feel good about that.”

Johnson said that while he voted against the system, he was disappointed by the behavior of some who opposed the system.

• • •

What’s next?

Murray County Water Resources Director Chris Hansen said the next step is to sit down with the board of commissioners to discuss moving forward with system inspections.

“We need to move forward with the shoreland inspections since we have done that in the majority of the county,” he said.

The inspections, required by Minnesota Statute Chapter 7080, will likely get underway in the spring, said Hansen. He said in the early 1990s, an agreement was signed with the Department of Natural Resources that all septic systems would be upgraded within a certain distance of water. Inspections in Murray County began in 2000.

Because of the possibility of the centralized sewer project, Lake Shetek area residents were able to hold off on completing the inspections. Now they will have to move forward, Hansen said.

He said that around 60 systems were inspected a few years ago, and that 92 percent of them were not in compliance. Since then, there have been some upgrades. Hansen is unsure how many systems will have to be replaced.

“It’s going to be very high,” he speculated. “They either had to put in a new septic system or the sewer.”

From an environmental standpoint, Hansen is disappointed that the centralized sewer project is not going through.

“I feel it’s unfortunate that it went this way, with the continued development out there,” he said. “More people in the area leads to more problems.”

• • •

Estimated cost for the project was about $17 million. Individual property assessments were estimated at $12,000 to $15,000. Residents and business owners would also have paid a monthly user fee.

Around $700,000 has already been spent by Murray County in research and planning of the project.

City to resume management of water & sewage systems
Peopleservice contract ending

City personnel are scheduled to take over operations of the Tracy water treatment plant effective Jan. 1.

A private company, Peopleservice Inc., has had a contract to operate the city’s water system since 2001. City and company officials have mutually agreed to terminate the contract at the end of this year.

Tracy Public Works Director Rick Robinson will assume the plant’s supervisory responsibilities. Robinson has state certification to run the plant.

The City of Tracy has been paying Peopleservice $7,504 a month to operate the water treatment plant and maintain the city’s water distribution and wastewater collection systems. City leaders and Peopleservice signed a five-year contract in April of 2001, after the death of longtime city water plant operator Ron Thompson, which left the city without a certified water plant operator. City leaders, worried about finding a qualified person to fill the void left by Thompson, decided to contract the work with Peopleservice

Mutual agreement

The decision to end Peopleservice’s relationship with Tracy came at a Dec. 20 city council meeting.

Al Meyer, area manager for Peopleservice, asked the council to lower a contractual requirement that the company carry a minimum of $10 million of general liability insurance coverage. Peopleservice, he said, could no longer afford to carry the $10 million worth of coverage, he said, because of more expensive rates. He asked that the city drop its coverage requirement limit to $5 million.

“We’re asking for your help,” Meyer said. Other Peopleservice communities, he indicated, had also been asked to drop their liability limits, and many had complied.

Meyer was asked what would happen if the city refused to go along with Peopleservice’s request.

“I’ll be honest, we’d probably drop it anyway,” Meyer said. Doing so, Meyer acknowledged, would put the company in breach of its contract with Tracy.

Robinson recommended that the city not agree to the reduced liability limits. In a memo to council, Robinson said that engineers calculate the value of Tracy’s water plant, water tower, wells, water mains and wastewater ponds at $13.5 million.

“Peopleservice may in fact be under insured,” Robinson wrote.

Mayor Steve Ferrazzano said that he thought the chances of $13 million worth of damages ever occurring to the city’s water and sewer systems as “slim.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” said Robinson.

After council members unanimously passed a motion to deny the Peopleservice request, Meyer asked that the council release the company from its contract. Council members agreed to Meyer’s request, asking only that the request be put in writing. Meyer agreed. The date of Jan. 1, 2005 was agreed upon as the transition date.

“That is not what I came to hear, but I thank you for the opportunity to serve you,” Meyer said.

Advantages seen

The council accepted Robinson’s recommendation, to have the public works director assume supervisory responsibility for the city’s water and sewer systems. In the long term, the council also agreed with Robinson’s recommendation to recruit and hire another public works department employee. This person could either be a certified water plant operator, Robinson said, or an existing employee who was then trained to operate the water plant. If an existing employee became the water plant operator, Robinson said, a new person would be hired for the public works department.

Having the new employee as a part of the public works department, Robinson said, will give more flexibility for snow plowing operations. Now, he said, the public works department has no backup personnel for snow operations, meaning that it is difficult for workers to take time off in the winter. Workers now feel that they practically have to be on their deathbed, Robinson said, before they take a sick day when there is snow to clear. A new water plant employee could serve as “a swing man” in case someone else is sick or gone, he said.

Robinson expressed the opinion that the termination of the Peopleservice contract would be “a blessing” for the city. He felt that the contract in Tracy has not worked well because of the inexperience of many of the Peopleservice personnel that have been stationed in Tracy.

This inexperience, Robinson said, has necessitated his involvement in training Peopleservice personnel. He said he would much prefer training in the city’s own employees.

Inexperienced Peopleservice personnel, Robinson felt, had been a factor in 11 discharge violations at the city’s wastewater lagoons this spring, and longer than necessary repair times for broken water mains. Operator errors, Robinson wrote in his memo to the council, could have been a factor in the failure of filters at the water plant earlier this year.

The public works director also told council members that eliminating the Peopleservice contract will allow the city to maintain direct control over on-going maintenance programs, such as meter replacement, exercising and replacing valves, fire hydrant replacement and mapping upgrades.

Tracy spending to increase 4% in '05

What is the cost of city government services in Tracy?

By one reckoning, the answer is $1,629,895, the City of Tracy’s general fund budget for 2005. Tracy City Council members approved the budget last week.

The general fund budget is comprised of $527,917 for general government operations, $392,553 for public safety, $536,266 for public works, $32,000 for recreation, and $141,159 for “other.” The $1.6 million general fund budget is a 4% increase from 2004 general fund. Tracy’s total 2005 budget—which includes debt service and public enterprise funds—is $5,807,956.

The council also finalized the city’s 2005 property tax levy. The $739,415 property tax levy is a 6.4% increase from 2004. Next year’s levy consists of $328,000 for payments on the city’s bonded debt, $10,000 for a permanent improvement fund, and $401,415 for the general fund.

Next year, local property taxes will account for 25.4% of Tracy’s general fund revenues. Money from the State of Minnesota is being counted on for about 54% of the city’s 2005 general fund revenues.

Police getting new 4x4 SUV

Tracy policemen will continue to drive a four-wheel drive vehicle.

Council members unanimously accepted a recommendation from Police Chief Bryan Hillger to replace a six-year-old Ford Explorer with another 4x4 sport utility vehicle. Council members rejected less expensive front-wheel and rear-wheel drive vehicles.

Council consensus held the added traction offered by a 4x4 during a snow storm justified its added expense.

“What is the price of one life, if it is ever needed?” said Councilman Robert Caron of the 4x4 capability, referring to the fact that police are often the first people to arrive at a medical emergency. A heart defibrillator is one of the pieces of equipment carried in police squad cars. A $23,583 front-wheel drive 2005 Chevrolet Impala, and a $23,382 rear-wheel drive Ford Crown Victoria were also considered.

Hillger indicated that he did not want the Ford considered because of its poorer winter traction.

Besides the availability of four-wheel drive, Hillger felt the Durango also offered the advantage of higher resale value. The sale price being offered from Salmon Motors, the chief indicated, also represented a good value, since a 2005 model would cost considerably more.

The Durango’s higher fuel consumption (estimated at $900 a year more compared with the Impala) and the potential for higher maintenance costs, Hillger pointed out, were its negatives.

The decision, Hillger wrote to council members in a memo, depends upon the level of service citizens expect from police.

“Whether you want us in a squad car or an SUV is really a question of what you want, or expect from your police department. It is also dependent on where you may live within the city. If you live on the edges or outskirts of town, do you want us to be able to get to you through two or three foot high snowdrifts in an emergency? With a four-wheel drive SUV, we stand a much better chance of getting there. In a rear-wheel drive squad car, there is practically no chance. With a front-wheel drive squad car, the chances are better, but still not even close to a four-wheel drive…it boils down to, as in many cases, saving money at the expense of service, or giving the service at an added cost.”

Hillger’s memo stated that the effects city’s new policy of keeping police vehicles for six years, and getting a new vehicle every three years, have been mixed, because of the higher maintenance costs that have been experienced with the Explorer over the past two years.

Council members asked whether the Explorer’s 4x4 capability had ever made a difference in the police department response to a wintertime emergency. The chief, who noted that recent winters have been relatively mild, said that he couldn’t say that it had.

The police department’s Ford Explorer is six-years-old and has 130,000 miles. It was the department’s first four-wheel drive vehicle. The department’s other vehicle is a front-wheel drive car.

• • •

In addition to authorizing the purchase of the new Dodge Durango, council members also decided to seek sealed bids on the sale of the Explorer and the city’s 1993 Ford. The Ford, which has 160,000 miles, is a retired police vehicle that is now used by city staff for out-of-town trips. Council members felt that money from the sale of the vehicles could be used to buy a used city vehicle with fewer miles.

Student hitches onto Ely dog-sled adventure

A Tracy Area High School student will experience what few others have this week.

Jenna Fischer, a TAHS sophomore, is one of 40 girls from across the United States who will experience an eight-day Outward Bound adventure that began Dec. 28 and continues until Jan. 4 in Ely. She was chosen to go on the trip through Girl Scouts.

Fischer will learn to ski expedition-style with a backpack, mush a dogsled over varying terrain, and camp comfortably despite extreme temperatures. She will join in all aspects of dog handling, including setting out the lines, feeding and watering, harnessing, and packing the sled.

An expedition day consists of preparing breakfast for both people and dogs, packing up camp, hooking up dogs, skiers heading out to break trail, and dogsleds following the skiers’ trail. Travel is over both land and lakes. In the evening, the girls will choose a good camp site, cook for people and dogs, get the camp ready for the night, and share stories about the day. The girls will do one night solo during the trip.

Expedition skills include ice reading, navigation, dog care, self care in the cold, teamwork, cooking, fire building, and general camp skills.

Voyageur Outward Bound School is a nonprofit, tax-exempt educational organization.

Hospital, clinic activity up

A surge in hospital and clinic patients last month added up to a good financial month for Tracy Area Medical Services (TAMS).

Combined hospital and clinic operations posted a net income of $52,732 in November, according to a financial report presented to TAMS advisory board members last week. The profit helped reduce a year-to-date operating deficit to $8,490 for the first seven months of TAMS’s 2004-05 fiscal year.

“Utilization is up,” said Stacy Barstad, TAMS finance director. “We’re happy to see that.” She noted that the increased activity ended a six-month period of low usage, which, had hurt finances. The months of December and January, she added, typically have high utilization.

Both hospital and clinic activity exceeded budgeted revenues for November. There were 114 inpatient days, 40 admissions, 67 swing bed days, nine swing bed admissions, 1,375 outpatient visits, 938 physician office visits, and 43 operating room procedures.

TAMS’s bottomline would have been even better in November, except for the $23,000 in hospital and clinic revenue that was written off as bad debt.

Chief Executive Officer Rick Nordahl said that he looks for finances in Tracy to continue to be “challenging.” Because he expects operating margins to remain tight, Nordahl told board members that he continues to look for increased operating efficiences.

“We are trying to watch every nickel that we spend.”

Nordahl said that spending priorities will be given to whatever impacts direct patient care and gives doctors better tools for diagnosing and treating patients. Support services will not have as high a priority. For example, Nordahl said that the chief operating officer position for Tracy, Westbrook, and Murray County will not be filled. (Nordahl was chief operating officer before being appointed to the CEO position this fall). Nordahl noted that a human resources position had been cut from 80 to 64 hours.

Gerrie Gilbertson, regional vice president for Sioux Valley Health Services, said that the challenge for the TAMS board and administration is to wisely set priorities as to how resources are used.

“You need to look at the big picture.”