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Study endorses $58M Rice County jail, but board seeks check-in with Steele
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Kicking the can down the road isn’t going to cut it anymore.

That’s the message from members of a Rice County task force asked to consider how best to modernize the county’s jail and law enforcement operations.

In a nearly 200-page report presented Tuesday to the Board of Commissioners, the task force — which included two commissioners, Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn, Administrator Sara Folsted, Facilities Director Matt Verdick and hired consultants — recommended the county build a 76-bed jail with a $55 million to $58 million price tag. Land for the new facility is not included in the total cost.

And while Commissioners Dave Miller and Steve Underdahl, who sat on the task force, say they’re convinced a new facility is the best option, Commissioners Galen Malecha and Jim Purfeerst weren’t so sure.

Both Malecha and Purfeerst agreed with their colleagues that locating a new facility on the current downtown site makes no sense, given the site’s topography and space constraints, but asked its administrator to check in with Steele County leaders before moving forward.

Malecha, who balked at the proposed cost, said he wanted to explore all options before going to the taxpayers with a project the size recommended.

Both cited a recent email from Steele County Administrator Scott Golberg asking Rice County to predict its future use of the Steele County Detention Center. While the two commissioners feel as if the email represents a request to partner with their southern neighbor, Golberg told the Owatonna People’s Press earlier this month that his board is simply looking for an informal discussion while Steele County considers re-allocating the space in its Detention Center.

Steele County, which is undergoing a jail study of its own, has an abundance of space and is considering converting part of its detention center for other uses. Part of its due diligence, Golberg said, is understanding the plans of surrounding counties that use the Steele County facility. Golberg sent a similar email to the Waseca County Board of Commissioners.

Commissioners aren’t much interested in waiting.

Underdahl cautioned the board not to delay, noting that it needs to make a decision within just a few weeks if it’s going to go out for bids by year’s end and break ground next spring.

Rice County has time, but not much. Paul Schnell, Minnesota’s Department of Corrections commissioner, has postponed a decision on converting the main jail to a 90-day facility, which would stop it from holding prisoners longer than 90 days, but that’s contingent on the county’s progress on its jail study.

Rice County has long known the Department of Corrections had issues with programming and recreation space in its main jail, but not until the commissioner threatened the county’s ability to hold prisoners at its main jail for more than three months, did the board again begin looking at options.

Currently, the county houses inmates in one of two facilities: a main jail on Third Street NW in downtown Faribault or at its Hwy. 60 annex, a former U.S. Army Reserve Center. The downtown site, built in 1975, houses medium- and maximum-security prisoners while the annex houses lower-security prisoners and those serving on work release. Both facilities are in poor condition.

According to Folsted, the city of Faribault has been kept apprised of the task force’s work and back the report’s findings. A jail on the annex site isn’t optimum, Folsted said, relaying the city’s comments. City leaders, she said, feel the site, on a main thoroughfare and surrounded by commercial development could serve a better purpose.

And while concerns about costs were a priority for commissioners, Folsted and County Finance Director Paula O’Connell, said that large bond payments will end in the near future, offsetting most new debt.

Enrollment decline has School Board again looking at major budget cuts
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A projected enrollment decrease of nearly 150 students by the start of 2021-22 has the Faribault School Board again looking at massive cuts in the district’s budget. This time it’s anticipating trimming off nearly $2 million in expenses.

Inadequate state funding has pushed Faribault Public Schools Director of Finance Andrew Adams and Human Resources Director Nicole Yochum to think outside the box in terms of district financing. During Monday’s board meeting, Adams and Yochum presented possible ways for the district to reallocate finances while prioritizing student-centered learning and mental health.

“It is zero fault of the district,” said Superintendent Todd Sesker. “It’s the pandemic, a lot of things resulting from where we are financially at the state … We have to make those adjustments and they have to come from somewhere.”

This won’t be the first time the School Board has needed to make budget cuts due to dwindling enrollment and insufficient state funding. The board made $1.9 million in budget adjustments for the 2019-20 school year and faced a similar conflict last year. After finalizing $1.5 million in budget adjustments for 2020-21, including the reduction of seven teaching positions, the board needed to slice another $1 million when more concrete numbers were factored into the equation. A decrease in enrollment, mostly at the kindergarten level, was one of the main contributors.

Budget adjustments could most significantly impact elementary families as well as students at the Faribault Area Learning Center. While no decisions have been finalized, the district plans to research how families would respond to a possible year-round school calendar at one of the elementary schools and weigh the pros and cons for reconfiguring the ALC at Faribault High School.

In analyzing the data, Yochum said the majority of the enrollment decline — about 100 students — is at the elementary level. She and Adams looked at ways to realign programming to offer the greatest opportunity for collaboration, which would reduce spending.

The traditional model of having birth to grade five students at each of the three buildings, and placed according to their neighborhoods, presents the smallest savings, $260,000, according to Yochum.

To reduce expenses, the district could divide students in the buildings according to grade level rather than neighborhood. Yochum presented three different variations of this option, each saving the district a possible $585,000. One example, the “band model,” would place birth to first grade in one building, second and third grades in the second building, and fourth and fifth grades in the third building.

School Board members Richard Olson and Jerry Robicheau both expressed concerns about transitioning students to three different buildings throughout their elementary school career. One concern of Olson’s was that staff would have limited time to get to know students if they spend only two years at each location. The band model also less efficient for transportation and special education.

The choice school model, which Sesker favors, would save the district $426,000. Within this model, one building would serve early childhood through fifth grade with a year-round school calendar, the second building would serve early childhood through second grade with a nine-month calendar, and the third would serve third through fifth graders with a nine-month calendar. This option would give families more options in selecting an elementary school, but the School Board agreed to first find out if families actually have an interest in a year-round school option before moving forward.

Students and staff who follow a year-round school calendar would attend school for several weeks, or about 40 consecutive days, with about a two-week break in between. The elementary school with the year-round calendar would have class sizes capped at 20 while other elementary schools have about 27 students per class.

Jefferson Elementary Principal Yesica Louis, who attended the meeting, discovered through a survey that her staff is generally on board with the year-round calendar and otherwise open to learning more about it.

“I really want the board to think about the mental health of staff and students,” Louis said. “… I strongly believe staff in the district are ready for the change. I know the interest is out there.”

The choice school model would also allow the district to braid funding with the Community Education Department, allow for more interventions with after-school programming, and more enrichment opportunities like Summer STEAM. Louis pointed out that over 200 students signed up for Summer STEAM for June and July last year, indicating a strong interest in these hands-on learning opportunities.

Although the choice school model doesn’t follow the neighborhood model, Board member Carolyn Treadway pointed out that many students in the district already attend the elementary school that is not necessarily the closest.

Faribault Area Learning Center

Moving on to the secondary level, Adams discussed reconfiguring the Faribault Area Learning Center in the high school to save the district an estimated $443,000. If the board instead chooses to find traditional budget adjustments, the district would save $155,000 between the two buildings.

“I will say there are more schools than I thought that have ALCs located within their high school or other buildings in the district,” Faribault High School Principal Jamie Bente told the board. “So it is something that is becoming more common, and I think it is due to the cost piece. I believe them working together would do great things.

Adams presented reasons for the reconfiguration, including increased access to support and college/career readiness programs for ALC students and early childhood classes for student parents to utilize. While ALC students have access to the same classes as FHS students, whether or not they want to be on the FHS campus is currently unknown.

Between last school year and the 2020-21 school year, Adams noted a decline in student enrollment from the usual 100 down to 60. ALC Director Vonna Dinse attributes the decrease to a few factors, including COVID-19. With students taking hybrid and distance learning courses no matter the school they choose, she said many may have elected to stay at FHS rather than going to the ALC. The surge of students that usually come to the ALC in early fall has first begun midway through the school year, she said.

One major disadvantage to reconfiguring the ALC at the high school is the possibility of creating anxiety for students who are already at risk. ALC students have not yet been asked if they would be open to going back to FHS.

“On the one hand I recognize we need to find money but I am very convinced we need to do our best for these vulnerable children,” said Board member Carolyn Treadway. “We have to look at where these cuts are made. We have to be highly cognizant of how we maintain that programming.”

If the district chooses the reconfiguration path, the district would continue to receive targeted ALC funding as long as ALC programming continues at the high school. However, if ALC programming doesn’t work out at FHS, the district risks losing that funding.

Needing more information upon which to base their discussion, the School Board agreed to hold a special meeting 6:15 p.m. Tuesday. What the board found, after three hours of discussing potential scenarios, is that no easy answers exist.

“Any cut that’s not painful was unnecessary to begin with,” said Board Chair Chad Wolff.

Advocates push to make historic tax credit permanent
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After a decade on the books, a tax credit that has played a crucial role in helping local downtown building owners to afford key maintenance projects is set to expire.

That’s pushed Faribault’s Heritage Preservation Commission, MainStreet Owatonna and other local advocates to ask the legislature to not only extend the credit, but make it permanent.

While 39 states offer a tax credit for historic building preservation, Minnesota’s is among the most generous, covering up to 20% of eligible expenses. As an alternative to the credit, historic building owners can claim a grant, for up to 90% of allowable credit.

The program mirrors its federal counterpart, with an identical discount, similar application process and set of qualifications. Only buildings certified as contributing to a Historic Preservation District or designated on the National Register of Historic Places are eligible. The dollars needed to create Minnesota’s historic preservation tax credit program were provided through the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, which in turn was funded by the approval of the Minnesota Legacy Amendment in 2008.

Still, the program created in 2010 was considered something of an experiment by the legislature. Legislators initially put a five year sunset on the program, then extended it in 2015 for another half-decade.

“The program has been really successful,” said Karl Vohs, a member of the Faribault Preservation Commission. “It’s gotten buildings that needed to be fixed up repaired in a really sound way, so they could go on to be taxpaying properties.”

Vohs has personal experience with the federal program, though not its state equivalent. Nearly 20 years ago, he acquired a federal historic preservation tax credit to fix up a building he owned in downtown Faribault — a process that he described as paperwork heavy, but helpful.

Across the state, Vohs noted that small- to medium-sized towns have particularly benefited the tax credit. In an attempt to maximize the assistance it receives, Faribault applied to greatly expand the portion of its historic downtown on the National Register of Historic Places.

To assist with the application process, the city hired consultant Dan Hoisington. Under the plans Hoisington has painstakingly put together over the last eight years, around 100 buildings would be included in the new district. By contrast, only the handful of buildings on the 200 block of Central Avenue is designated as part of the National Register of Historic Places, though a city-designated historic district has many more.

Most buildings would be in both the new National Register of Historic Places district and the existing downtown historic district, though some would fall in one and not the other. Following a series of administrative delays, Hoisington completed and submitted the paperwork for the new district last year.

In order to receive state dollars, the district must be approved by the National Register of Historic Places as well as the State Historic Preservation Office. That process, which normally takes around six months to complete, was delayed by the pandemic.

Even though Hoisington is based in Roseville, he tends to eschew Twin Cities area projects for ones in greater Minnesota. Working in small towns throughout the state, he said he’s seen the effects of the tax credit over and over again.

“That little extra carrot from the state has accomplished so much in terms of helping projects to move forward,” he said.

MainStreet Owatonna Director Shirley Schultz is also a big supporter of the program. Schultz said she’s reached out to her legislators to urge them to support the bipartisan bill that would make the tax credit permanent.

Rep. Cheryl Youakim, DFL-Hopkins, and Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona introduced the bill last week with Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, as a co-sponsor. In addition to saving historic architecture, Schultz said the tax credit provides crucial support for small businesses.

“This program has allowed some of our downtown buildings to come back to life as a thriving business,” she said. “Many of our small businesses get their start in those downtown buildings.”

The program’s advocates say the investment has been well worth it. According to an analysis from the University of Minnesota Extension Service, the state tax credit has helped generate more than $3.3 billion in economic activity since it first went into effect.

In fact, the revenue created by the projects is so great that according to an Extension Service analysis of six properties across the state, the program may actually pay for itself — particularly over the five-year period which building owners are now required to claim the credit over.

Of that $16.3 million awarded by the state to those projects, half was returned to state and local governments in tax collections upon project completion. Within just five years tax collections in those cases exceeded the credits awarded.

A survey by the Extension Service found showed just how crucial a role the tax credit has played in making those projects happen. According to the survey, 90% of respondents said they would not have invested in their building projects without the tax credits.

Given the crucial role the tax credit has played in delivering investment, Vohs said he doesn’t understand why legislators wouldn’t renew the credit. However, the polarized climate and strained relationships between Minnesota’s DFLers and Republicans gives him cause for worry.

“We’re in a very disappointing and partisan era in our politics, but looking at this it would be strange for senators or reps to not want to continue the program,” he said. “It’s really been something that works.”