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News from the week of June 14, 2006


School projects $234,000 deficit

Smaller classes, increased salary & energy costs cited

By Valerie Scherbart Quist

The District 417 school board may have some difficult budget decisions to make in the coming year.

Monday, the board approved the district’s preliminary budget for the 2006-2007 fiscal year. According to the budget, the general fund will show a negative balance of $234,882 as of June 30, 2007, leaving the district’s fund balance with $400,000.

Superintendent David Marlette said the main reasons for this negative operating budget include a decrease in state revenue due to the loss of 39 student numbers (-$400,000), increase in energy costs ($100,000), inflation costs of supplies and services ($50,000), and increase in staff salaries ($100,000).

The loss of student numbers has the biggest effect, Marlette said. This year, Tracy Area High School graduated a class of over 80 students. The kindergarten class coming in to Tracy Elementary School will have only about 40 students. Some students are picked up from St. Mary’s School in seventh grade, and additional students come in from Milroy and Balaton in ninth grade. The district also brings in more students through open enrollment than it loses, said TAHS Principal Chad Anderson. Unfortunately, those additions are not enough to make up the difference.

Marlette predicts that the district will lose approximately the same number of students next year. This is a trend that is expected to continue until the larger classes in the high school have all graduated, and high school numbers have evened out with those at the elementary school.

The decrease in student numbers also brings up the question of staffing. In recent years, the district has increased its staff to accommodate special programs. If staffing is cut, the district runs the risk of losing those programs, as well as electives at the high school level. Changes were made to the 2006-2007 schedule to allow for an eight-period day, which will give students more elective opportunities.

While it’s not difficult to identify the source of the problem, it is a difficult problem to solve. Marlette cautioned the board against future depletion of the fund balance.

“We can’t go on doing this forever,” he said. “Do we make the cuts to balance our budget, or do we go to the taxpayers and ask them for money?” He added that these were questions the board would be asked to help answer in the coming year.

Last fall, district taxpayers approved a referendum for capital improvement projects. The first year of these levy dollars will be used for a final payment on the district’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning project. The remainder is earmarked for other capital projects over the next four years, which will likely include door replacement, parking lot repairs, and security cameras. The referendum money cannot be used for salaries and other expenses, since it was sold to the taxpayers on the basis of capital improvements.

On a positive note, Marlette pointed out areas where the district has already cut its expenditures. Through these cutbacks, the district has saved about $450,000 over its budget last year. However, revenues are also down, by $243,000.

Marlette told the board that while he was not happy with the negative operating budget, the negative balance could have been much higher.

“I wish it was balanced. I wish there wasn’t deficit spending,” he said. “But it could be a lot worse.”


Architect to present school addition options

By Valerie Scherbart Quist

The District 417 board of education will have a special meeting on Tuesday, June 20 at 6:30 p.m.

The first portion of the meeting will be dedicated to a joint session with the Milroy Public School board. At 8 p.m., the board will hear from a contractor and architect on the options for a fine arts/athletic facility that is being considered by the district.

Board members heard Monday from facilities steering committee members on the research they have done. Deb Miller, who was involved in researching options for an auditorium/theater, said her committee had toured several schools’ auditoriums, including Springfield, Pipestone, Lakeview, Willmar, Marshall, Jackson, and Redwood Falls.

The group recommended basic specifications for the auditorium, including seating for 800+, balcony, sound/lighting booth, dressing rooms, costume rooms, workshop, storage, stage, foyer, bathrooms, and entryway.

Miller said on first glance, 800 seats may seem like too many. However, she said that many of the schools with less seating wished they had more. Also emphasized were the potential uses for the auditorium beyond theater productions and concerts, such as awards programs, community events, and lyceums. It was also noted that a facility could attract regional events, such as speech and theater competitions.

Miller said that the group recommended the board move forward with architectural plans for the facility.

Karl Campbell, who was involved with researching the gymnasium aspect of the proposed facility, also recommended that an architect be consulted.

“We have two choices: make do with what we’ve got or enhance our community,” Campbell said.

Features recommended for include an 1,800-seat gymnasium, wrestling room, weight room, and locker rooms. Campbell added that some of these features could possibly be housed in the existing athletic facility.

Campbell said Tracy’s location could be a major selling point in bringing events to the facility, when teams from northern schools play teams from southern schools.

Superintendent David Marlette told the board that the next step in the process, if they would like to move forward, is to have someone draw up preliminary plans. He said this would probably amount to a $10,000-15,000 commitment.

At next week’s meeting, the board will hear from Dale Birkeland from general contractor Krause/Anderson, as well as architect Mike DeVetter. Members of the steering committee and anyone interested in the project are encouraged to attend.


Wellness center clears hurdle

Construction could begin this month

By Seth Schmidt

Construction on a proposed $560,000 Tracy wellness center will likely begin soon.

The long-discussed project cleared a major hurdle Monday night, when the Tracy City Council unanimously approved a tax-abatement plan for the development.

“I’m looking to start construction by late June or early July,” said Ron Gramstad Tuesday. Gramstad and his brother, Warren, are the project developers.

The new wellness center is planned southeast of the hospital on a 250x300 foot parcel of undeveloped land. Besides a community wellness center, the new building will also house therapy services now at the hospital. Vacated hospital space would be used for other outreach medical services. Sioux Valley Regional Health Services (SVRHC) would lease the wellness center building from the Gramstads and manage the center.

Ron Gramstad said that he and his brother are close to finalizing lease terms agreement with SVRHC,

“We have to go through the lease one more time and sort a few things out. But I really don’t see any problems.”

The Gramstads have already agreed to terms with the Tracy Economic Development Authority to buy the wellness center land for $5,000.

“The papers are all ready to be signed,” Gramstad said.

Rick Nordahl, SVTMC administrator, could not be reached for comment.

24-hour access

The wellness center will be accessible to members using a keyless card system. Members will have a monthly fee. The center will be equipped with state-of-the-art exercise machines.

Although final plans have not been approved, it is expected that the center will have at least 6,200 square feet. A driveway will be built from Fifth Street East, and off-street parking developed.

The developed property will have an estimated annual tax capacity of $20,900. The tax abatement okayed by city council Monday, will allow the city to return the city’s portion of the real estate taxes (about $14,400) to the developers for 10 years. After the ten years, the owners will pay full real estate taxes.

Todd Hagen, city financial consultant, told council members that to qualify for tax abatement, the project must pass the “but for” test. Would the project be financially feasible without the tax abatement? Hagen said. Ron Gramstad has said that the project will not cash-flow without the tax abatement, and that they would not build the center without it.

Financial projections on the new wellness center are based on membership projections of 180 people, Hagen said.

The Gramstads and SVTMC have been studying the wellness/rehabilitation center for about a year. City of Tracy leaders were exploring other options for financing the wellness center, before the Gramstads came forward with their plan to build the center with private money.

Mid-autumn is the targeted completion date for the new center.

The Gramstad brothers, who live in the Sanborn area, own the Tracy Ace Home Center. They are partners in RWS Joint Ventures, the company that will build the wellness center.

Casey's scheduled to open June 22

Casey’s General Store will open its doors in Tracy next week.

The new convenience store is scheduled to open at 6 a.m. Thursday, June 22.

“We are going to start stocking shelves Tuesday morning,” reported Ellen Sidles, area supervisor for Casey’s. “People are going to see a lot of delivery trucks backed up to the store.”

Final construction work is being completed this week.

The Casey’s is located on the west edge of Tracy at the intersection of Hwy. 14 and Morgan Street. Construction on the Casey’s building began in late 2005.

The store will have 16 fueling stations (four pumps, each with four dispensers) offering two kinds of fuel.

Inside, the Casey’s will offer groceries, automotive supplies, fountain drinks, donuts, pizza, sandwiches, and video rentals, Sidles said.

Kelly Jacob has been hired as the Tracy store manager. The Casey’s will have a staff of 11-12 people overall.

Store hours will be 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.

A grand opening is planned Friday and Saturday, June 23-24.


Residential inspection process stirs second-guesses

Residential inspection process stirs second guesses

By Seth Schmidt

A solid success or embarrassingly flawed?

Two starkly different perspectives of a recent enforcement campaign for Tracy’s residential nuisance ordinance surfaced in Tracy City Council chambers Monday.

“It is working,” Police Chief Bryan Hillger said of the May nuisance inspections.

“This was very shabby work on our (the council’s) part,” said council member Jan Arvizu.

The police chief reported that he issued 46 citations for nuisance ordinance violations, a number that he said was “down substantially” from previous years. The city has had as many as 80 nuisance violations in a year, and has averaged 55 to 60 in recent years, the chief said.

Why the decrease?

Hillger suggested two possible explanations. Perhaps advance publicity motivated people to clean up violations prior to the inspections. Or perhaps, he continued, people responded because they knew they would face an immediate $25 fine for a citation. In the past, violators received a warning with their initial notice. This year, for the first time, the fine was immediate.

Arvizu and other council members (Bill Chukuske and Tim Byrne were absent) felt that the city had erred by not having more than one individual conduct the inspections. Several council members (Arvizu, Russ Stobb, and Sandi Rettmer) wondered if in some cases, the violation notices sent to property owners were too vague in explaining the violations. Arvizu felt that the council should have set up some type of appeals process. As it was, she said, citizens had only two choices: pay the $25 fine or contest the charge in district court and risk another $75 fine.

At one point in the 30-minute discussion, Mayor Steve Ferrazzano suggested that “since we messed up by not having two people” conduct the inspections, citizens who had already paid the $25 fine and have since corrected their violation, should be given their money back.

Ferrazzano’s idea was dropped after City Attorney Frank Nielsen voiced strong objections the concept of “rebating” fines that people had already paid.

Rettmer agreed, who said the city would be opening “a can of worms” by giving back fines.

“Whether we made a mistake or not, we shouldn’t change a horse in midstream.”


Two opinions needed?

Council members noted that at a previous meeting, they had discussed having Shorty Engel accompany Hillger, as he did last year, during the nuisance inspections. But, City Administrator Audrey Koopman said, Engel was not available this year, because he was busy re-opening the aquatic center.

Council members felt they had erred by not making sure that two people conducted the inspection. The opinions of two people, several council members felt, would help insure fairness.

Arvizu felt that the council should have offered some type of appeal process, before forcing citizens to pay a $25 fine.

Ferrazzano said that this appeal process was already in place. If people don’t feel the citation is justified, they can refuse to pay and present their arguments in district court. In this respect, the mayor said, a nuisance citation is no different from a traffic ticket. A police officer giving a nuisance ordinance citation, just as he would for issuing a traffic ticket, has to exercise judgement. A citizen can appeal a traffic ticket in the judicial system, just as they can a nuisance ordinance violation.

Arvizu said that most people will simply pay the fine, whether they feel it is justified or not, rather than risk an additional fine and take time off from work to appear in court.

Nielsen said that the current process allows for the review of a citation at three different points. 1) In the initial violation notice, citizens are informed that they can call City Hall with comments extenuating circumstances and ask questions. 2) If the $25 is not paid, the city attorney would review the citation to decide whether further prosecution is merited. 3) If the case progresses to district court, a judge or jury would review the case.

“It’s not just the opinion of one person,” Nielsen said.

Nielsen said that it would not be proper for the council to get involved in the judicial process by reviewing a citation that has already been issued.

Koopman felt the city’s nuisance ordinance enforcement process is fine. But she suggested it would have been helpful if a committee had established “parameters” for issuing citations prior to the inspection.

The council ended their nuisance ordinance discussion by agreeing to have Councilman Russ Stobb ride along with Hillger during a follow up inspection. (People who received an initial nuisance citation and $25 fine must correct the problem or face an additional $75 fine).

Several council members indicated that they would like to review the nuisance ordinance enforcement process in the future.

Rettmer said that she felt the council was “making a mountain out of a mole hill.” She indicated that she supported the goal of encouraging people to keep their property neat and clean. But she added that she didn’t like the concept of making nuisance violations a criminal offense.

“Now we have people who are guilty of a criminal offense if they violate this ordinance.” She said she didn’t like the idea of citizens having to go to district court, simply because they didn’t keep their yards as neat as city government desired.


City to seek more Vet Center rent

By Seth Schmidt

City of Tracy leaders will ask Tracy Public School officials for a substantial increase in lease payments for use of the Veterans’ Memorial Center.

The school now pays the city $6,000 annually for unlimited use of Vet Center gym space for 10 months of the year. The current lease expires July 1. School athletic teams used the facility for practices in the fall, winter, and early spring, and some elementary, junior high and B-squad competitions.

City Administrator Audrey Koopman suggested to city council members that the city seek an increase in the school’s rent because of rising utility costs. During 2005, utility costs (water, natural gas, soft water, electricity and garbage disposal) at the Veterans’ Center totaled $34,527. If the school didn’t use the gym space, Koopman said, the city would keep temperatures in the gym and locker room areas considerably cooler, and not spend nearly as much for lighting.

Based upon eight months of actual use by the school, and the amount of space that the school uses, Koopman said that school use accounted for about $16,803 in utility expenses in 2005.

Koopman said that the utilities represent only a part of the city’s operating vet center operating costs. The city has extra custodial costs because of the school lease, and also added equipment needs, she said. A floor scrubber, scheduled for replacement next year, Koopman noted, will cost an estimated $7,000. Two time clocks need to be replaced. Discussions are underway from a soft drink vendor, who would provide one $8,000 clock in exchange for advertising and an exclusive contract. But the city could still be responsible for the replacement of the second clock.

“We have expenses, but we don’t have any event revenues,” Koopman said.

Besides the lease money from the school, Koopman said that the city took in about $1,400 from other rentals in 2005.

Councilman Russ Stobb said that the city is making the community a better place to live by maintaining the Veterans’ Center.

“Some of what we do as a city is to contribute things to the community,” Arvizu said.

“Not everything we do makes a profit,” agreed Mayor Steve Ferrazzano.

Sandi Rettmer disagreed.

“We need to cover our costs.”

Koopman said that it needed to be kept in mind that the school district and City of Tracy were two separate taxing districts. City of Tracy taxpayers, she said, were paying for all veterans’ center expenses, except for rental and lease payments.

“I’m looking for some direction,” she asked council members.

Stobb suggested that the city request a $12,000 lease payment from the school. Other council members agreed, and instructed Koopman to begin discussions with Supt. David Marlette.

Arvizu said that it should be recognized in the negotiations that school leaders are taking a look at a school addition that would include athletic facilities.

Other council business Monday included:

Liquor store patio

Manager Ron Radke expressed doubt that a patio planned east of the liquor store will open this year. He said that he had recently met with architects, and expected to have some cost estimates for the next council meeting.

Ferrazzano said he’d like to have the patio opened by Box Car Days on Labor Day weekend.

Radke responded that a 2006 opening wasn’t impossible, but unlikely. He said he’d prefer waiting until next spring, rather than pay out all patio expenses now, and then only have two weeks of income from the patio. He said the patio construction will include repairing the exterior wall of the liquor store, landscaping, and patio furniture. Some work could begin this year, he said.

The city has been working on the patio project since 2004, when a vacant pool hall building was purchased. The structure was torn down last summer.


Public works

Council member Jan Arvizu complimented the public works department for the work that it has completed this spring.

Public Works Director Rick Robinson said the department had been very busy this spring. Work has included planting and mulching trees, mowing parks, opening up aquatic center, street sweeping, repairing boulevards, hauling gravel, removing vines from St. Mark’s Museum, construction inspections, rolling grass airport runways, closing out 2005 airport project, cleaning water tower, upgrading water treatment plant controls, flushing fire hydrants, working with pool sewer plans, working with engineers on proposed drainage and sewer system improvements.

He said that city workers had assisted on west Hwy. 14 Monday, where a “sink hole” had developed because of a deteriorating county tile.

Pool opening

Arvizu, speaking as a member of the pool committee, said she was happy with the re-opened Tracy Aquatic Center.

“It is beautiful. It is a great asset,” she said “Many people have spent a lot of time making that pool happen.”

The council approved committee recommendations to define what qualifies for a “family” membership at the pool.

Councilman Charlie Snyder said that he would like consideration given to making the resident and non-resident fees the same next year. Currently, a non-resident season family pass costs $50 more than a resident season pass, which is $100. A non-resident single season pass ($100) costs $40 more than a resident single pass. Snyder said that he thought the city would sell more season passes, and gain revenue, if resident and non-resident passes were the same.

Koopman said that city residents were granted a lower rate, because they are paying extra property taxes for the aquatic center. Regardless, she said that the aquatic center’s rates are reasonable compared with other area facilities.

Arvizu said that an open house celebration was being planned at the pool sometime this summer, although the date hadn’t been set.


Aquila franchise

A recommendation from City Attorney Frank Nielsen was approved to set a June 26 public hearing for granting a new natural gas franchise to Aquila. Nielsen said that the proposed franchise ordinance was acceptable to the city, but he noted that the language does not contain a requirement that Aquila provide a local payment site as the council had requested. Aquila representatives, he said, had attempted to find a business office that would offer this service, but to date had been unsuccessful.

Aquila representatives told the council that they would continue to search for site. However, several council members felt the local payment site wasn’t a high priority, since local people have other acceptable options for paying their natural gas bill.


Judgments to be filed

Court judgments that the City of Tracy obtained against four former Tracy residents for public nuisance and hazardous building violations will be filed against four bare lots.

Koopman said that the October, 2003 judgments inadvertently had not been recorded against the properties. The judgments were: Martinez, $1,778; Kramer, $3,970; Olsen, $4,757; Her, $17,451.

The judgments represent money that the City of Tracy has paid out for legal fees to have four vacant buildings torn down. The Her property, which was a fire-damaged property at the corner of Third and Emory Street, had added expenses because of asbestos issues, Koopman said.

Council opinion was divided on whether it was worth filing the judgments against the property.

Russ Stobb said it was doubtful that the city would ever get money from the judgments. “It’s not going to hurt anything, but I don’t think it is going to help much either.”

Rettmer said it has been the city’s recent practice to forgive assessments on tax forfeit property, if a potential buyer ever comes forward.

Nielsen said that having liens on the property would be a benefit, since it would the city some leverage in how a new owner asking for forgiveness of the assessments would use the property.


Condemned property

A written report from City Building Inspector Gary Garrels was accepted, to declare a vacant house at 941 Center Street to be a hazardous building. Garrels had previously reported that the house’s foundation was caving in and in danger of collapse.

The city will proceed with legal action to have the owners of record to either raze or repair the house, or have the city demolish it. Expenses will be assessed against the property.

Nielsen said that, unlike many of the hazardous buildings that the city has been forced to demolish, the Center Street property likely would have value as a new home site because of its location and size.

The late Jack and Ardene Schaeffer were the last occupants of the house, which has been vacant since the late 1990s.


Engineering contracts.

Two engineering service agreements were okayed with the firm of Short Elliott Hendrickson Inc. of Worthington. For a fee not to exceed $5,100, the firm will prepare plans and bidding information for installing 10 fire hydrants, and 13 gate valves. A second agreement for $16,600, call for the firm to provide construction administration services for a 2006 crack seal, seal coat, and security fencing project. Most of the airport expenses will be reimbursed by a state grant..