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News from the week of August 16, 2006


Public opinion sought for high school addition

By Valerie Scherbart Quist

Taxpayers in the Tracy School District will soon be asked to participate in a survey asking what type of new facilities they would be willing to support at Tracy Area High School.

Monday, the District 417 board of education voted to move forward with a community survey conducted by Springsted Inc. The purpose of the survey is to determine whether taxpayers would support a proposed arts and athletics facility addition to the high school.

It is expected that the survey process will take approximately two months. The cost to the school district will be approximately $12,000.

Jim Schmitt of Springsted told the board he believes it would be a wise decision to survey the taxpayers before putting together a ballot.

“It’s a great tool,” he said.

Schmitt shared his experience with such a survey at his former school district in Waseca. There, one bond was defeated before the district did a survey. Following the survey, the district had a better understanding of what the community would support and was better able to sell the bond issue to voters, he said.

On one recent survey that Springsted conducted, Schmitt said, it was clear after the survey was conducted what dollar amount taxpayers were willing to support. Statistics show that doing a survey prior to asking the public to vote improves the chance of a bond issue passing, he added.

A bonus to conducting the survey, Schmitt said, is that it allows the district to get input on how the public feels about the school.

“It’s more than a bond issue,” he said. “It’s also the school district and how you are doing. In a way it’s like an evaluation.”

Schmitt said Springsted and the Center for Community Opinion would gather information from the district and form a set of preliminary questions. The board would then have the opportunity to review those questions and determine whether they would like to add or eliminate questions. The board would not be directly involved in crafting the wording of the questions, Schmitt said, because it is important how questions are phrased.

On some questions, he continued, the board may want to use a split question with two different types of wording. This helps to determine how best to phrase a question on a ballot.

Schmitt said surveys generally contain 28 to 40 questions and last from eight to 12 minutes. Once the questions are approved, voter files will be used to generate a random selection of people to survey. For a community the size of Tracy, Schmitt recommended that 300 surveys be conducted. Schmitt said there is a 93 percent response rate, and that the surveyors will continue to make calls until they have the 300 surveys needed. Calling would likely be done in the Twin Cities and would be done by Midwestern surveyors.

Following the survey, Springsted representatives will report to the board on the results. After the formal process there may be some follow-up questions to go over with the board, Schmitt said.

Schmitt said it would be up to the board to notify the public that the survey will be taking place. He said it will be a somewhat difficult time to conduct the surveys because of all the political surveys currently taking place. However, he added, once people hear that the survey is for the local school district, they tend to stay on the line.

Board chairman Dan Zimansky asked whether the public could be informed ahead of time what company would be appearing on the caller ID so they would be more likely to answer. Schmitt said he would check into this and get back to the board.

• • •

The decision to conduct the survey is a step forward in the proposed arts and athletics facility discussion. Last month, the board held a special meeting with members of the facilities steering committee to discuss the possibility of conducting a survey. At that meeting, the board felt it would be good to seek additional estimates from companies that could conduct the survey.

Supt. Marlette said that in his research, Springsted was the company recommended as the best and most reliable company in the state for this service. He said the district could possibly save some money by using a different firm, but they would also run the risk of not getting the same quality of data.


Brady Averill is Star Tribune intern in Washington D.C.

A 2002 Tracy Area High School graduate is working in Washington, DC as an intern for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

“For the most part, I cover all things in politics with a Minnesota connection,” Brady Averill explained in a recent e-mail.

The Star Tribune internship continues through December. Averill then hopes to get a permanent reporting job with a daily newspaper.

“I’m not sure where that will be,” Averill wrote. “I’ll begin the job search this fall.”

In her Star Tribune internship, Averill often assists more experienced reporters. On one occasion, she helped a Star Tribune writer gain access to a source at the Russian Embassy.

“The phone had been busy all day. I was told there was no way the guards would let me inside. But I got in.” A phone number obtained by Averill in the embassy made it possible for the Star Tribune reporter to talk with the source and get the information needed for the story.

The internship has given Averill close up view of nationally known political figures such as Sen. Hillary Clinton and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

• • •

Averill joined the Star Tribune after obtaining a journalism degree from the University of Minnesota this spring. During her last two years at the “U,” Averill wrote for the student-run Minnesota Daily. She was the paper’s managing editor during her senior year.

Prior to her work at the Minnesota Daily, Averill had internships with the Tracy Headlight-Herald, Winona Daily News and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Averill wrote that while she still has much to learn, she feels that she has gained valuable experience in learning how to follow leads, conduct difficult interviews, utilize spread sheets and data bases, and obtain documents and records.

“I’ve been incredibly lucky to have some brilliant mentors. They inspire me, and I can count on them for help when needed,” she wrote.

Averill is the daughter of Becky and the late Gene Averill of Tracy.


City plans replacement of oldest water meters

Fire hydrant repairs also to move ahead

By Seth Schmidt

City of Tracy leaders are taking the first step in a water meter replacement program designed to reduce the amount of unbilled water flowing through city water mains. A more ambitious plan to immediately replace all water meters has been placed on hold.

The meter replacement plan—which has an estimated price tag of $35,000 to $43,000—will upgrade up to 90 residential meters and about 50 larger commercial meters. New computer hardware and software that will allow the new meters to be “radio read” from locations outside the building where the meter is located is also included in the cost. Council members decided that the city can’t afford an estimated $180,000 program to replace all of the city’s approximately 1,000 water meters at the present time.

Acting Monday night, council members also agreed to move forward with a $36,000 program to replace ten broken fire hydrants and repair eight others. The council opted to postpone the repair of 15 broken water main gate valves at an estimated cost of $2,400 each ($36,030).

Money for the improvements is to come from the city’s utility fund, which is generated by monthly water and sewer payments from city utility customers. The utility fund is to be paid back at a later date when the city borrows money through the sale of a bond. The bond is to be sold when the city moves forward with a delayed South Tracy drainage improvement plan


Water meter replacement

Council members chose a middle course between recommendations from Public Works Director Rick Robinson and Finance Director David Spencer.

Robinson recommended the complete replacement of all city water meters with the new automatically-read meters. Most of the city’s water meters are old, Robinson told council members, with the city’s last major meter replacement campaigns occurring in 1975, 1979, and 1981. A few meters in the city date from the 1940s and ‘50s, Robinson reported. The city’s newest meters are those installed in the 1990s as replacements for broken meters.

Since water meters get slower as they age, Robinson said that the city is “losing” massive amounts of billable water due to old meters that don’t accurately measure water flows. In 2004, Robinson calculated that the city generated 28,4 million gallons of unbilled water, or 27.4% of water produced. The “lost” water, if billed, would have amounted to $113,625 in city revenues. In 2005, the city water plant produced 103.4 million gallons of water, but billed for only 75.9 million gallons. The 23.1% water loss, Robinson said, amounted to $99,636 in lost revenue for 2005.

Robinson said that not all of the city’s water losses could be attributed to slow meters. But if the city could reduce its water losses close to 10% with new meters, the savings to the city would be considerable, he said.

The public works director said that the new radio-read meters were efficient and accurate. Because meters are read accurately each month, unusual meter readings that suggest leaks will be noticed promptly, he said, before large bills accumulate for customers. All of the research that he has done on the radio-read meter systems, indicates that the equipment works well and that people are happy with them.

A rule of thumb, Robinson told council members, is that 10 to 15 years is the useful life of a water meter. Most of the city’s water meters, he said, are 25 to 30 years old. Robinson said that it is not economically feasible to invest labor and parts into repairing old meters. Robinson also reported that buying meters by August 15 would beat an expected price increase and save $15 to $20 a meter.

Spencer said that he didn’t dispute the idea that new meters would save the city money. But he said he didn’t think a town the size of Tracy could afford to replace all of its meters at one time.

The finance director said that he thought most of the city’s unbilled water was due to 51 old residential meters that weren’t replaced in the city’s last meter campaigns and a number of old mechanical style meters, one inch and larger. Spencer recommended replacing these old meters first, and then evaluating the improvement before investing more money in a total meter replacement.

Replacing all meters, Spencer said, would result in discarding about 800 meters that function properly. Not replacing the 800 meters, Spencer calculated, would save Tracy taxpayers about $100,000.

Spencer also expressed concern about the dwindling balance of the utility fund, which he said had declined from $498,000 on Jan. 1, 2004, to $207,000 on Jan. 1, 2006. Continued spending, Spencer said, raises the risk of depleting the balance and not having reserves to fall back on. (City Administrator Audrey Koopman noted that several large expenditures at the water plant, such as new controls and filters at the water plant have been financed recently from the utility fund).

Council members chose a middle ground, taking Spencer’s suggestion to replace only the smaller number of meters initially. But they also accepted Robinson’s argument for the merits of the new electronic radio-read meters by agreeing to the new computer equipment and software. All of the new meters will have the capability of having readings taken remotely.

“It (100% meter replacement) would be nice to have, but we don’t have the money,” summed up Mayor Steve Ferrazzano. “What we need to do is replace the meters that don’t work, and then the ones that were installed by Abraham Lincoln. I know that in the long run we need to do it (100% replacement), but I don’t want to see the utility fund down to zero.”


Fire hydrant replacement

Council members were unanimous is feeling that inoperable fire hydrants be replaced or repaired. Five of the ten inoperable fire hydrants date from the 1940s, and four are of 1960s vintage. The oldest broken hydrant, at the corner of First Street East and East Morgan, dates from 1910.

Broken hydrants are designated by bags tied over them.

Council member Sandi Rettmer, noting that two of the broken hydrants were near North Star Building Systems, and Tracy Food Pride, said that it is imperative that the city have accessible hydrants should a major fire break out.

Eight other hydrants that are of 1970s vintage need to be repaired at an estimated cost of $500 each.

Council members agreed with a recommendation from Koopman to postpone replacement of the water main valves on the grounds that the lack of water shutoffs do not represent a dire emergency. Robinson said that the broken valves mean that it is more difficult for city crews to isolate areas when water needs to be shut off because of a broken main.


Two Germans & an Italian

3 exchange students join TAHS student body

Three foreign exchange students will be attending Tracy Area High School in the coming school year.

A boy from Italy and two girls from Germany arrived in Minnesota last week, and will be staying with local host families until June.

David Ottogalli, 16, comes to Tracy from a town near Venice, Italy. He is staying with the Steve and Diane Ferrazzano family of Tracy.

Tinka Albach, 16, is from Olpa, Germany. The Seth and Betsy Schmidt family of Tracy is her hosts.

The third student is Lisa Schreier, 17, of Braunschweig, Germany. She is staying with the Joe and Marcia Schreier family, who live on Lake Shetek.

David and Tinka come to Tracy through the AFS foreign exchange program. Lisa is with the EF exchange program.

All three students got their first taste of school activities Monday.

David practiced with the Penguin soccer team, which will play high school soccer under the sponsorship of Tracy/Milroy/Balaton and Westbrook/Walnut Grove athletics this fall. David’s father is in sales for Cisco Systems in Italy, and his mother is a postal carrier. His interests, besides soccer, include the outdoors, physics, mathematics, downhill skiing, and water skiing. He said goodbye to a sister in Italy, but gained a seven-year-old brother in Stephen Ferrazzano.

Tinka worked out with the Panther cross-country team, running about three miles Monday morning. Her interests include music, history, the outdoors, reading and writing, and current events. In Germany, she plays the clarinet in a community band, took couple’s dance lessons. Tinka left two older sisters and an older brother in Germany. Her parents are both teachers. Maria Schmidt, who is a junior at TAHS, is her new American sister.

Lisa has decided to join the new Panther dance line club this fall. She comes to Southwest Minnesota from Braunschweig, Germany, where her mother works in an art gallery and her father is an investment and marketing manager. Besides dance, her other interests include music, history, politics and basketball. She has a younger brother and sister in Germany. Beth Schreier, 17, who is beginning her junior year at TAHS, is her new sister in the USA. The German and Lake Shetek branches of Schreiers are not thought to be related.


EDA counters four-plex offer, raises rents

The Tracy Economic Development is offering to sell its four, four-unit apartment houses for $782,000.

Acting at a special meeting Friday, the EDA board reduced its previous $900,000 asking price in response to a $664,000 offer made by Zeb Prairie of Tracy. EDA members rejected Prairie’s offer, noting that it was less than the approximately $718,000 in debt still owed on the real estate. The $664,000 offer was based on an independent appraisal that the EDA conducted recently.

EDA members also rejected a proposal from Prairie that he be allowed to buy the four-plexes on a contract for deed.

EDA members also decided that the rents being charged on the Eastview and Fifth St. Apartments were too low. A motion was passed to raise rents at the Eastview Apartments from $510 a month to $575 a month, and the Fifth St. Apartments from $510 to $550 a month. The new rental charges will go into effect Jan. 1, 2007.

The Eastview and Fifth St. apartment rents were last raised in June of 2004.

Two of the EDA’s four-plexes are located on Third St. East in the Eastview Addition. The remaining four plexes are on Fifth St.


School & city agree to short-term Vet Center lease

The Tracy Area Public Schools and the City of Tracy have agreed to a new two-year lease for the use of Veterans’ Memorial Center gym and locker room facilities.

Both the District 417 school board and the Tracy City Council approved the lease Monday night.

As requested by the City of Tracy, the lease increases the school’s annual rental fee from $6,000 to $12,000. City leaders requested the increase to help offset increased utility costs. But the lease does not include the 10-year term the city had requested.

The old lease expired July 1 of 2006. The school district has used the gym and locker room space in the Vets’ Center (formerly Prairie Pavilion) primarily as a practice facility for volleyball, basketball, wrestling, and baseball. Some junior high, elementary, and B-squad competitions are also held at the facility, which has two full basketball/volleyball courts.

The lease agreement concludes negotiations that began earlier this summer.

According to information presented to city council members by City Administrator Audrey Koopman, school representatives agreed to drop demands for several facility improvements, such as the replacement of time clocks. Koopman said that the improvements would be more feasible for the city, if the school was willing to make a long-term lease commitment. The administrator noted, however, that some Vet Center upgrades, such a repairing a leaky roof, will need to be done regardless of the school lease.

Superintendent David Marlette told school board members that the school district had no other option but to agree to the rent increase because the Vet Center space is needed. Marlette said that conducting early-morning practices or busing students to gyms in Milroy or Balaton would be difficult.

Marlette said that he did not recommend that the school district enter into a lengthy lease at this time. In two years, he said, it would be known whether the district will be adding to its high school facility. The Veterans’ Center lease can be reconsidered at that time, he said.