Like many Americans, St. Peter resident Kathy Dean was looking forward to the upcoming elections this November. She and her husband enthusiastically hung a homemade “Joe 2020” sign in support of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on a tree outside their home. But a few weeks ago, Dean woke up to find the sign missing.
“It’s a sad state of affairs when people are stealing signs when we can’t just accept that people have different views,” said Dean.
As the country inches closer toward a heated election, local communities in Southern Minnesota have seen reports of sign stealing. In Le Sueur, Police Chief Bruce Kelly said that he had received two reports of theft related to the election. This included a flag in support of President Donald Trump, which was stolen and later retrieved from a teenager, and an anti-Biden sign which was reported missing. But other than that, reports to police have been non-existent.
“We haven’t had a lot of that, so hopefully that continues,” said Kelly.
The amount of sign theft can be difficult to quantify, because it often goes unreported to police. Dean said she didn’t file a report to the police, because she wasn’t sure they could do anything about it and she’s not alone in that.
St. Peter Police Chief Matthew Peters said that while the department gets complaints, people don’t want to file an official report, since it is difficult for police to follow up and because signs are of little financial value.
“People call us to tell us that they had the sign stolen, just to let us know,” said Peters. “But they don’t want to leave their name or make an official police report.”
“It’s impossible to try and find a stolen campaign sign,” Peters added. “Just as a sidebar, an officer was walking with his wife the other night, he found a campaign sign that was in the gutter. Basically it was folded in half and thrown in the gutter. Who owns that sign, who knows? It’s very difficult to say.”
From a criminal standpoint, the penalties for a sign theft are fairly minor. Because signs are low in monetary worth, the most a person would likely be charged in relation to a theft is with a petty misdemeanor. Minnesota state statute bases the seriousness of a crime in accordance with the dollar amount.
Though much has been written about increasing political polarization in the United States today, Peters said that the department hasn’t seen more reports of sign theft in comparison to previous election years. The larger issue for the community hasn’t been sign theft, but sign placement.
The city of St. Peter has also had to respond to some complaints related to campaign advertising — signs posted by campaign officials, rather than signs purchased and displayed by private individuals. State campaign laws only allow for campaigns to put up signs 46 days before the primary election and limits signs to being on private property in a manner that does not block sight lines for drivers. When there are upcoming elections, the city of St. Peter contacts campaigns and informs them of regulations of sign placement.
“Oftentimes the campaign candidate will place the sign directly and then the homeowner moves it into the boulevard for various practical reasons — it’s easier to mow or they’re not aware of the regulation,” said Peters.
If the city receives a complaint on sign placement, the city reponds and a city official may end up removing the sign if it is in violation of state statute or may become a safety hazard due to obscuring sight lines or blocking an intersection. On state highways, where campaign signs are blocking sightlines, the Minnesota Department of Transportation will have someone remove the sign.
Le Sueur firefighters will see a welcome $1,000 yearly pension increase come 2021 and a brand new fire truck on top of it.
On Sept. 14, the Le Sueur City Council voted in favor of raising the pension for volunteer firefighters from $4,000 per year of service to $5,000 per year of service. The new rate will kick in on Jan. 1, 2021.
The increase comes at no cost to the city since the pension is funded through an independent investment fund which receives contributions from the city and from the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA). The city aims to keep a minor surplus in the account at a 105% funding ratio. The fund currently has a large surplus with a funding ratio of 126%.
City staff and the PERA determined that using the surplus to increase pension rates by $1,000 would bring the surplus down to 106% — still within what the city considers a healthy range. The surplus funds can only be used toward the pension and only the city has the power to raise it. In 2017, the city raised the pension by a similar amount from $3,000 to $4,000 per year of service.
“The fund is in very good shape,” said City Administrator Jasper Kruggel. “I feel it is perfectly fine to move it up to the $5,000 level … It won’t have any negative financial implications on the city.”
Two-hundred volunteer fire departments across the state are part of the PERA retirement system, and with this latest increase, the city of Le Sueur will be one of 10 cities paying service pensions of more than $4,000 per year. Mayor Gregory Hagg wondered how the city could afford this, considering that other cities with comparable pension levels, like Waconia and Willmar, had much larger populations.
Kruggel responded that since the pension is funded through investments and contributions, pension plans between cities could only be compared on an individual basis. In Le Sueur’s case, Kruggel said that the fund managers made wise investments before transferring management over to PERA.
“We don’t know how the funds have been done in other communities; we don’t know how they’ve invested it or how it’s been funded,” said Kruggel. “It speaks a lot to previous management in the Fire Department previous to PERA to get the Fire Department to a place where we can even offer $4,000 per year.”
However, there were concerns from councilors over how the economy could impact the pension fund. If there were an economic recession, the balance could potentially fall below 100% and the city would be required to make it up. Councilor John Kirby and Mayor Hagg raised concerns that COVID-19 and the upcoming presidential election could make the economy volatile, and cut into the fund balance. Hagg proposed that the city may want to look at tabling the discussion until after the election in November.
“I don’t want to put the city into a situation where we have to add considerably more money into PERA because the market may have tanked,” said Hagg.
Kruggel said that, in a recession, it would likely be best for the city continue the fund as normal and wait for the market to recover.
“If it drops below 100%, we would ride this out and hold steady and that’s worked over the past 100 years with the stock market,” said Kruggel. “Generally speaking we will have a conversation like this every few years. If the stock market is generally healthy you will see an increase. It doesn’t do anybody any good to have a large funding ratio. It should be used to retain and recruit firefighters who have served their time.”
Councilors Marvin Sullivan and Newell Krogmann pushed back against suggestions to temporarily table the pension, saying that the city can’t predict what will happen in Washington and how the market will react.
“I don’t think putting this off until January 1 is going to change realistically, we’re playing a game of guessing what politics are going to do,” said Sullivan. “This increase even though it’s $1,000 per year, though it looks like a lot of money it’s a very small amount to be paying our citizens that give up their time with the fire department. They put in a lot of training and education and time.”
New fire engine
With the pension increase passed unanimously by the council, the city will not be paying the $25,000 it normally contributes annually to the retirement fund this year. Instead, that money which comes from the general fund will be budgeted to help pay for a new fire engine for the Fire Department.
At the same meeting, the city agreed to purchase a $665,000 2021 fire engine built by Custom Fire Apparatus to replace an aging 26-year old Freightliner currently being used by the Fire Department.
Of that cost, around $45,000 would be offset by selling surplus equipment and $310,000 would be paid by surrounding townships which receive services from the Le Sueur Fire Department. The remaining $310,000 will be paid for over 15 years starting in 2022 through an equipment certificate.
City Administrator Kruggel estimated that the cost of the fire engine would increase the city’s tax levy by 1% starting in 2022. It would not impact this year’s levy. By making the purchase before Sept. 30, the city will save 8% on the purchase — roughly $50,000.
The city has typically replaced fire trucks on a ten year cycle, but the current truck up for replacement is now 16 years old. The fire truck ordered by the city comes with new safety measures including air bags throughout the cab, a center walkway on the hose bed to prevent falling and lighting for night operatons. It’s also capable of holding 1,200 gallons of water — current engines have a 1,000 gallon capacity — the hose is positioned for fast deployment, can seat 5 firefighters at a time as opposed to three and has room for tool storage.
Fire Chief Jesse Wenisch said that the department was in need of a new engine, especially to respond to fires out of town where the engine needs more water in storage.
“When we go to these calls we do need a pumper and a backup pumper,” said Wenisch. “We can’t just send these guys in without a backup line or another truck there so our existing 1994 Freightliner we’re looking at replacing is a 500 gallon truck which is very small for a rural fire. In town we hook them up to a hydrant but it doesn’t meet NFPA standards with the small amount of water … It needs to get replaced because it’s just not legal with NFPA standards.”
Wenisch explained that the two pumpers are currently legal, but are lacking in self contained breath apparatuses, which could potentially put the city at a liability risk in the event of an accident.
“If there is something that would happen to a firefighter on the scene they would potentially want to know what truck was there, what everybody was doing and if we didn’t have the proper equipment and training it would definitely come back on the city’s hands and potentially be a lawsuit,” said Wenisch.
Local candidates for a hotly contested state race said COVID-19 and lowering the cost of health care remain the top local issues during a Saturday debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Northfield and Cannon Falls.
District 20 first-term incumbent Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, and his challenger, Jon Olson, D-New Market, participated in the debate. District 20 includes Le Sueur County.
COVID-19, health care
The virtual debate format, a way to prevent the spread of COVID-19, ensured the pandemic was a main discussion point.
To Olson, COVID-19 has separated three working groups: professionals who can work from home during the pandemic, skilled labor who were laid off and frontline workers whose health and mental well-being have been impacted. Olson described his support for local government aid funding from the state to ensure local communities can make it through the pandemic.
As of Sunday, Minnesota had 95,711 COVID-19 cases and 2,056 deaths. In Wisconsin, a state with a slightly higher population, 120,000 cases have been reported with 1,291 deaths. In Iowa, a state with a lower population than Minnesota, 85,586 cases have been reported with 1,312 deaths. In Texas, a state with a much higher population, 765,000 cases have been reported with 15,792 deaths.
To Draheim, the state’s COVID-19 response has been both good and bad. He noted a majority of deaths in the state have come from long-term care facilities. However, he agreed with Little that the state needs to use metrics in opening the state, adding that legislators have had little input in decisions as Gov. Tim Walz continues using emergency powers to quicken the state’s response to the pandemic.
“Like anything, this is a great learning lesson that we should take what worked, what didn’t work from the past year,” he said.
Olson said he has always lived in a “science-based, fact-based” way and made clear, data-based decisions. He noted countries around the world have struggled with the virus, adding that, though people want the economy to open, decision-makers must be “thoughtful” and “reasonable” as cases spike. To him, hospitalization rates are a good barometer of how the state should respond to the pandemic.
Olson said the health care system is not working the way it was designed, noting farmers have told him they quit paying health insurance premiums because the high costs of such plans conflicted with other pressing needs. He spoke of his support for patient-centered, high-quality, affordable health care, like standard care, addiction counseling and eye care. He also believes the state must address health care cost drivers and social determinants.
Draheim, who spoke of the health care bills he has authored with the intention of lowering costs, including re-insurance, said the current price of care bleeds into health insurance, long-term care facilities and nursing homes. Draheim noted one of his initiatives includes a bill allowing people to shop for out-of-network health care services, something he said he wants to implement in his next term if he is reelected. The savings would be split between the patient and insurance company.
Government spending, economy
A previous state surplus is projected to change to a projected $2.4 billion deficit following COVID-19.
Draheim noted his top economic concern is reestablishing pre-COVID 19 economic conditions, considered to be one of the best in 50 years. He said by 2026, health and human service costs are projected to double. To combat that projected increase, Draheim said the state must plan and prioritize spending and ensure those who receive assistance are qualified to do so. He added the state must also ensure all students have broadband access during COVID-19.
To Olson, Minnesota has “a moral responsibility” to protect critical services for the state’s most vulnerable residents, noting his belief in the importance of education as a state investment and the need to creatively generate revenue without eroding the state’s budget reserves.
Other top goals Little has in a possible second term is implementing paid family medical leave to ensure resident can care for their spouses who are sick. For Olson, a top goal is allowing Minnesota to make significant investments in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to possibly elevate the state to an attraction level similar to Silicon Valley for talent and enable breakthroughs in medical science, pharmaceuticals and in other areas, possibly through research investment incentives.
To Draheim, aquatic invasive species and weeds pose major problems for the environment. He spoke of a bill he authored to start using environmentally friendly road sealant made from soybean oil, a measure he said would also help local farmers.
Olson strongly favors clean energy investments, adding that the transportation sector is considered to be the biggest polluter. He spoke of the work being conducted by energy companies and advocated for incentives to be in place to foster competition.
Draheim, who lives on Lake Washington in Le Sueur County, is a small business owner. He spoke of his participation on a number of Senate committees and working groups. In referencing his bipartisan work, Draheim noted he was chief author of 139 bills last session. Of those, 100 were bipartisan, and 28 of 32 DFL senators signed onto one of his bills.
Olson, who moved to the area in 2012 after retiring from the Navy, says he’s running because of the extensive partisan political division. He described himself as “an outsider looking in,” and attributed a perceived lack of bipartisanship to a failure from both Democrats and Republicans.
“Bipartisanship is about establishing trust in the future,” he said.