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News from the week of March 28, 2007


State climatologist: winters definitely warmer

By Deane Morrison

U of M News Wire

When Minnesota ice fishing tournaments are canceled for lack of ice, you know it was a mild winter-again. Mark Seeley, a University meteorologist and state climate history expert, says the change in winter is for real.

“Although we can always find warm winters, we can’t find a string like the last nine,” says Seeley, author of Minnesota Weather Almanac. The changes are in line with predictions by models of global warming.

Based on average temperatures, January 2006 was the warmest since 1846, and December 2006 tied for fourth warmest in state history. That’s a far cry from December 1983, the coldest of the 20th century. The relative heat wave means we’re burning less fossil fuel in our furnaces, too. “At present energy prices, some people would be paying a monthly heating bill equivalent to a mortgage payment” if December 1983 were to repeat itself, Seeley figures.

Municipalities are spending less on snow removal, and schools and businesses close less often. The weather also means a longer construction season for contractors, a longer biking season, and even winter golfing.

The lack of snow is in part a cause, as well as an effect, of our warm winters.

“You don’t get record setting warm winters with snow,” says Seeley. Snow reflects solar radiation, helping the air around it stay cold. But bare ground soaks up the heat, warms the air, and contributes to further snowmelt. As more northern land goes snow-free in winter, it helps accelerate global warming.

As temperatures rise, Minnesota may be seeing more freezing rain and sleet. And no longer is March the snowiest month; with more March precipitation falling as rain, January has taken the top spot.

“This can help alleviate the spring snowmelt effect,” says Seeley, referring to the flooding that follows a large, rapid snowmelt.

Records begun in 1895 show that 10 of the 20 warmest November-March intervals have occurred since 1981. Higher minimum temperatures, which usually occur at night, seem most responsible. In his book, Seeley writes that southeastern Minnesota counties’ average daily minimum for February rose from 8.2 F for 1951-1980 to 11.7 F for 1971-2000.

“That’s a change of 3.5 degrees, large in comparison to changes in maximum temperatures, which are typically just a few tenths of a degree,” he writes.

This small change has hurt ski operations, outdoor hockey, and skating. Even car mechanics are feeling the heat.

“My mechanic said that during the 1970s and ‘80s, a huge part of his income was installation of engine block heaters,” recalls Seeley. “They’ve all but disappeared.”

Near catastrophe didn't stop 24-year fire dept. career

By Seth Schmidt

The first time Keith “Whitey” Engesser fought a fire on the Tracy Fire Dept. was almost his last.

“The Tracy Lanes fire was my first fire,” he remembers. “Jake (Don Jacob) and I had gone inside, but the smoke was so thick we couldn’t see much. We had just come out to change our packs when the roof collapsed.”

Jacob remembers the moment too.

“We’d been in there by the lockers, but couldn’t see a darn thing. Why we’d decided to come out, I don’t remember, but it (the roof) was coming down when we got to the front door. We got out and it just went woof.”

When Engesser and Jacob narrowly escaped catastrophe in the February 1983 fire that destroyed the old Tracy Lanes, Ronald Reagan was serving his first term in the White House.

“We must not have scared him (Engesser) because he’s stayed on the department this long,” Jacob laughed.

Engesser became a fireman at the urging of family members and friends.

“My uncle (Earl) had been the Tracy fire chief, and my dad (Whitey Sr.) had been an officer. My dad went to coffee with Dennis DeBlieck and Morris Ohman who were both firemen. They all kept asking me when I was going to go join the department.”

The rookie fireman of 1983 went onto serve 24 years on Tracy Fire Department, including 12 years as a captain and eight years as the Tracy fire chief.

“It doesn’t seem like 24 years, I can tell you that,” said Engesser, who recently retired from the department. Two other firemen—Marv Van Acker (25 years) and Ken Sheets (23 years)—have also retired. (See related story).

Looking back, Engesser said he had no idea how much of a commitment being a fireman would become.

“The word volunteer doesn’t really describe it,” Engesser said “It takes a lot of time, and being captain or the chief requires even more time.”

Every fireman, Engesser said, can share stories of pagers sounding at inconvenient times, and missed family events because of fire calls.

“Birthday parties, holiday meals, Christmas programs, you name it,” Engesser said.

Yet actual calls are just a small part of the fireman’s commitment. Tracy firemen also meet two to three Monday nights each month. One Monday is devoted to checking trucks and equipment, the others to training.

“Over the years Tracy has had a reputation for being one of the toughest departments for training,” Engesser said. “We believe in training because you never know what you are going to run into.”

Once, the department staged a flipped vehicle accident at the bottom of a ravine. Firemen had to use ropes to get a steep slope, tie down the vehicle to prevent further slippage, and again use ropes to bring victims up from the ravine.

Two weeks later, firemen were called out to rescue a motorist from a ravine near Garvin Park.

“Some of the guys said, ‘now I see why we trained for that,’” Engesser said.

Engesser recalls responding to what was later determined to have been an arson fire. Firemen didn’t know when they arrived on the scene that gasoline had been poured on inside walls. Engesser ordered firemen not to enter the house until it had been properly ventilated. As things turned out, the order might have been life saving.

“It could have flashed (exploded) on us and killed anyone who had gone inside,” Engesser said.

• • •

So, with poor hours, mediocre pay and dangerous working conditions, why would anyone want to be a small-town volunteer fireman?

The answer, Engesser responds, is partly a genuine desire to perform a needed service in the community, and partly the camaraderie of working closely with others.

“It’s like a family,” the former chief said. “Everyone knows that they have a job to do and that they can depend on everyone else.”

If someone gets sick or hurt, the fire department family pitches in to help. Recently, for example, a group of firemen gathered to help fellow fireman Dennis Van De Putte who was hospitalized from a fall. Firemen gathered to complete the farm clean up work that Van De Putte was working on when he fell off of a combine.

The spirit of mutual respect and working together extends to the Tracy Ambulance Service, Tracy police and area fire departments.

“We all know each other and we all work well together,” Engesser said.

Through the years, Tracy firemen have simply enjoyed pitching in when big jobs face the community. He recalled an occasion when Tracy suffered widespread tree damage from a summer storm. Firemen turned out to help haul away the debris.

“Homer Dobson bought us all steaks later, and we had a good time,” he said.

But being an emergency responder and fireman also has a stressful side, Engesser admits.

“I’ve seen some things that people shouldn’t have to see,” he said, referring to his work at the scenes of accidents and tragedies. Often one knows the victims and the families involved, which doesn’t make accident calls any easier, Engesser said.

• • •

Engesser witnessed several trends during his fire department tenure.

Tracy firemen have fewer fire calls, but are making more rescue calls. Engesser attributes the decline in fire calls to more fire retardant building materials and more restrictions on open burning. The spike in rescue calls is in part to the department’s increased rescue training. The department’s rescue training includes water and ice rescues, hazardous spills and chemicals, and carbon monoxide poisoning. When Engesser joined the department, Tracy firemen didn’t have a “Jaws of Life” for cutting people out of wrecked vehicles. Now firemen have their own Jaws, plus air bags for lifting heavy objects, an infrared search camera and cold-water rescue equipment. Many of the firemen are trained as severe weather sky watchers.

Rapidly escalating equipment costs are an on-going challenge. A compressed air pack that cost $1,200 ten years ago, now costs $4,000, Engesser said. The last fire truck that department bought cost $225,000.

The fire department has continued to be able to attract good people, Engesser said, and has 26 people. “We’ve got a lot of good young firemen.” The new fire chief, Dale Johnson III, Engesser said “is really good.” But a possible worrisome sign for the future, Engesser said, might be attracting enough firemen who work in Tracy and are available for daytime calls.

“We have a lot more men who work out of town now.”

• • •

“It’s time,” Engesser says of his retirement from the department. He’s looking forward to having more time to golf and fish. “I’ve got enough hobbies to stay busy.” He said he is thankful for all of the good firemen he has worked

The one thing he’ll miss, Engesser said, is not going off to a fire when he hears sirens go off.

“I won’t miss the headaches and all the paperwork. But I will miss the calls. You get a rush when your pager goes off. Your adrenaline gets going.”

But it will be a while before Engesser misses a fire call. He is temporarily filling in for injured fireman Dennis Van De Putte.

$447,542 Tracy, Currie and townships get state grant

A combined grant application from the City of Tracy, City of Currie and Holly and Des Moines River townships has qualified for a $447,542 state grant.

The Small Cities grant award was listed on the Minnesota Department of Trade and Economic Development’s web site Monday.

The grant is to be used for the rehabilitation of 18 single-family owner occupied houses, six single-family rental units, and two duplexes. No information is available as to how the grant money will be distributed among the two towns and townships.

The Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, which prepared the grant application, combined the city and township requests in order to improve the application’s chances.

The $447,542 was less than what had been sought. The application sought $514,000 to rehabilitate 22 owner-occupied houses and eight rental units, and demolish four old structures. Twelve of the single family projects in the grant application had been slated for Tracy, seven for Currie, and three for the townships.

Last fall, surveys showed that 220 Tracy homeowners were interested in the program.

Robert Gervais, Tracy community development director, said that he will learn more about how the program will be administered at an April 10 meeting in Mankato. Most likely, meetings for interested property owners will be held in late April or early May. The dates and times of those meetings, he added, will be well publicized.

This will be Tracy’s second Small Cities grant program. In April of 2003, Tracy received a $934,000 grant for commercial, rental, and single-family housing rehabilitation. Those Small Cities projects were done over a three-year period that ended in 2005.

Drainage plan bids sought

Long-studied improvements may begin soon

By Seth Schmidt

A long-discussed plan for improving drainage in South Tracy moved a step closer to reality Monday.

Council members passed a resolution approving plans and specifications and authorizing the advertisement for bids on the estimated $382,000 project. If a contract is awarded on April 23, construction would likely begin this summer.

The project is designed to alleviate surface flooding that occurs periodically in South Tracy following a heavy rain that falls in a short time. City leaders have studied possible drainage improvements since substantial flooding occurred over the Memorial Day weekend of 2004.

The planned drainage project includes:

• Dry water retention area on five acres of land northeast of the intersection of Front and South Fourth (former Central Livestock property). The area would be graded to temporarily hold water during a heavy run-off event. Storm water in the retention areas would gradually drain into existing storm sewers and eventually into a county ditch leading northeast.

• A 42-inch storm sewer along a segment of South Fourth St.

• Extending a storm sewer line west from South Fourth to Spring street.

• A dry retention area, about 100 x 120-feet, on the northeast corner of high school land, south of Greenwood Nursery.

The retention pond on what is now school property was one of three points requested by District 417 officials Monday. Council members also agreed to allow the school to connect a tile onto the extended Spring Street storm sewer at some future date, and to have the new culvert going underneath South Fourth by the elementary school be installed as low as possible. The council also agreed to a school request that the city assume ownership of the quarter acre parcel of high school land that will be used for the retention pond. Marlette said the school didn’t want the liability issues that could go with the retention area, and also the on-going maintenance of the land.

The school sought the three points after City Administrator Audrey Koopman, Supt. Dave Marlette, consulting city engineer Steve Robinson, and Public Works Director Rick Robinson met Monday afternoon. School board members had expressed concerns the previous week about the school district’s estimated assessment of $150,000 and how much the city’s project would improve school drainage.

• • •

Marlette told the council that he remained concerned about the $150,000 estimated assessment the school district would have to pay for the drainage project.

City representatives responded that the $150,000 estimated assessment was the result of the school being by far the largest land-owner in the benefited area.

A total of 31 property owners, including Tracy Public Schools, stand to be assessed for the drainage improvements. The assessment area includes the area bounded by the Highline Road, Pine, Greenwood, and South Fourth streets, and the area in the Broadacres Addition bounded by South Fourth, Front, and Pine streets, and an imaginary line 850 feet east of South Fourth.

Assessments won’t be finalized until exact construction estimates are known and the project is completed. An assessment hearing likely will be held this fall.

If the council follows its past assessment policy, half of costs will be assessed to benefiting property owners with remaining cost absorbed on general city tax rolls.

The $382,000 estimated cost includes the acquisition costs for five acres of land for the retention ponds, and all construction, engineering, legal, administrative, and construction management expenses.

Wellness center finish seen by early June

Construction progress continues on the new Tracy Wellness Center.

“It’s coming along pretty well,” said project developer Ron Gramstad Monday. He expects the 7,900 square foot building to “pretty well wrapped up by late May or early June.”

This week, Karl Campbell Construction workmen were completing interior stud walls. G& R Electric was installing the building’s wiring. GH Plumbing & Heating continued the installation of ductwork for heating, air conditioning and ventilation. Sheet rock installation, taping and painting will follow soon.

“We should see quite a lot of things happening in a short period of time,” said Gramstad.

Exterior work on the wellness center will resume soon. . Outside work includes construction of an entryway on the building’s west side, siding and decorative brick and rock. Gramstad said that work will also begin soon on the building’s parking lot, which will have room for up to 25 vehicles, and landscaping.

The Wellness Center is located southeast of the Sanford Tracy Medical Center, at the corner of Fifth St. East and Union streets. Construction began late last fall on a 250x300-foot plot of land in the Eastview Addition.

Besides a community wellness center, the new building will also be home to the therapy services now located at the hospital. RWS Joint Ventures, the project developer and owner, has entered into a long-term lease with Sanford Tracy Medical Center for the use of the new building. Wellness Center members will be able to use the fitness center 24 hours a day through a card access system.

Contract glitch threatens liquor store patio opening

A glitch in a Tracy Municipal Liquor store patio project will be discussed at a special city council meeting Tuesday, April 3. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m.

Council members set the meeting after learning that a $62,781 contract awarded last year does not include a refurbished front (south) wall.

Councilman Bill Chukuske said that he had been under the impression that the contract awarded to Art Peterson Construction “was a complete package.” No one, he said, had indicated that the front (south) wall of the court yard was not included in contract specifications.

Council members Charlie Snyder, Sandi Rettmer, Russ Stobb, and Mayor Steve Ferrazzano all indicated that they also felt that the contract included a completed patio.

“I wouldn’t have voted for it if I hadn’t thought it was for the whole thing,” said Snyder.

Rettmer said it was the council’s intent to have the basic courtyard construction completed this spring, so that all that remained when warm weather arrived was the planting of flowers and shrubs.

Rettmer and Chukuske said that since the front wall was the courtyard’s most visible feature, the patio likely wouldn’t be able to open on time this spring.

“I want to know who dropped the ball,” Chukuske said. He said he was disturbed it was the end of March, and no one had brought the unfinished wall problem to the council’s attention. He said he had learned the front patio wall had not been included in the contract only because he had happened to stop by the construction site and talked casually with Peterson.

Chukuske said he was not blaming Peterson, who is only following the terms of his contract.

Ron Radke, liquor store manager, said that he was aware that the front wall hadn’t been included in last year’s bid specifications. He said that the project architect had not had time to complete designs for the front wall, and Radke said he had assumed that the council knew that. Radke said it had been his assumption that the south wall design would be approved at a later date. Radke said that the architect has estimated the cost for the front patio wall at between $4,700 and $5,200, a cost that would include masonry work on an existing brick wall and new metal grillwork.

City council member Tony Peterson, who was elected in November, said that he had watched the meeting when the patio bid was awarded on television and he had gotten the impression at that time that the front patio wall was not included in the original contract.

• • •

Proponents of the courtyard say it will increase on-sale revenues by providing an outdoor gathering spot during summer months. The city to date has spent over $80,000 on the project, including acquisition and demolition costs of the old pool hall building that once stood on the liquor store’s east side.

The courtyard project has included a new door and windows on the liquor store’s east side, repairs to the west wall of the Horn Chiropractic building, and a new floor.