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As sister and brother living in the same household, Kali and Kolbe Erickson of St. Peter can safely play tennis together. They have been playing regularly at St. Peter High School during the COVID-19 virus pandemic. (Pat beck/St. Peter Herald)

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Lonsdale continues to lead neighboring areas in housing permits

It wasn’t a fluke when the city of Lonsdale issued 45 new housing permits in 2018, not when 2019’s grand total increased by just one.

Compared to neighboring areas, particularly towns with populations of similar size, Lonsdale once again exceeded the number of housing permits issued in one year. New Prague issued 23 housing permits in 2019, Montgomery issued 16, and Elko New Market issued 10. Lonsdale also surpassed the number of housing permits larger towns issued last year — Faribault issued 17 and Northfield issued 40.

Even in the greater region, Lonsdale’s housing permits exceeded the numbers issued in Belle Plaine (22) and Farmington (40). Jordan, population 6,276, issued the same number of housing permits as Lonsdale in 2019.

City Planner Ben Baker credits Lonsdale’s extended housing boom to the town’s close proximity to I-35 as well as the low cost of lots, which run between $35,000 to $55,000 on average. These lots would sell for $75,000 in 2020, but Baker said lots purchased last year were developed between 2000 and 2007. These vacant lots are based on prices from that time frame.

“A lot of these lots are running on 15-year-old neighborhoods,” said Baker. “That’s a big factor.”

Lonsdale contractors also build homes for reasonable prices, said Baker. Home buyers typically choose from five to seven floor plans, and builders save the buyers from further expenses by limiting their customization of the homes.

The average new home permit value in Lonsdale was $242,000 last year, and the total value of single-family home permits issued in Lonsdale was $11.2 million.

Lonsdale had 90 total home sales in 2019, a decrease of 37 from 2018. The average home sale price in Lonsdale in 2019 was about $265,000 — up about $21,500 from 2018’s $243,000 average. The highest sale, located in a newer development, went for $368,000 while the lowest sale was $70,500.

LGI Homes built 25, over half of Lonsdale’s new homes in 2019. Loomis homes followed with the second largest total, 15 homes.

Comparing school district regions, new homes in the New Prague district were more evenly matched with those in the Tri-City United district in 2019. Twenty new homes were built in the TCU district and 26 in the New Prague district. That’s a significant change from 2018, when the New Prague district saw just four new homes and the TCU district saw 41.

New homes were constructed in seven different developments — 21 in Willow Creek Heights, 11 in Legacy Meadows, and five or less in each of the remaining developments.

Only 160 platted single-family lots remain vacant in Lonsdale within the newer residential subdivision developments. Eagle Creek, Shadow Stone and Singing Hills are full, and other subdivisions like RayAnn Acres, Heritage Estates, Harvest Ponds and Rolling Ridge are close to 100% complete. Val Rose Gardens is the only subdivision with more than half of its vacant lots left.

As these lots become more full, the city of Lonsdale has considered land to start new subdivisions. In November 2019, the Lonsdale City Council approved a request for annexation of property from Wheatland Township into the city of Lonsdale for a subdivision called Crusader Ridge, which Garry Tupy of ALG Enterprises proposed. Crusader Ridge would meet the needs of Lonsdale residents who want to transition to a larger home and lot without moving out of town.

In 2020 so far, Baker said only four housing permits in Lonsdale have been reviewed, paid for and approved. But that’s similar to last year, when three permits were issued by April. Baker said it’s not uncommon for contractors to bring in 12 permits for approval at once, so he anticipates more are ahead.

Building permits, as a whole, saw an increase in Lonsdale, from 234 in 2018 to 264 in 2019, and Baker predicts an increase again. Since the coronavirus outbreak, he’s seen an increase in building permits, possibly because stimulus checks prompted residents to complete building projects like storage sheds.

“It will be interesting to see what takes place in 2020, if the virus will have an effect on builders or buyers and if they’re still interested in purchasing because mortgage interest rates have dropped,” said Baker.

City Council awards New Prague contractor Trcka Park improvement project

Plans for the Trcka Park improvement project continue to progress, as the Lonsdale City Council made K.A. Witt Construction, Inc. the contractor.

After receiving a matching Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Outdoor Recreation Grant in the amount of $250,000 last fall, Lonsdale moved into the planning stages for the Trcka Park building project earlier this year. A full-sized paved ice rink with lights, a park building equipped with a warming house, restrooms and shelter, plus a parking lot and walkways, are expected to come to fruition with the help of grant funding.

Seven contractors bid on the project, which the city rebid in March. Four contractors had responded to the first bid in February, but the lowest bid at $424,000 exceeded the city’s budget. The City Council then authorized Oleson & Hobbie Architects to revise the plan to lower the cost for the second bidding round. This time, K.A. Witt Construction, of New Prague. came in with the lowest bid at $354,000.

During its virtual meeting Thursday evening, the City Council unanimously approved the bid, entering into a contract with K.A. Witt. The company offered two alternative bid prices, one at $10,000 for perimeter foundation for a future enclosure to the open picnic shelter and another for $21,500 for metal roof panels instead of asphalt shingles.

City Planner Ben Baker said it’s been known that residents venture to surrounding areas, like Elko New Market, for outdoor family functions, so adding the perimeter foundation would not only make for a better product but provide a large size gathering area. The council approved this alternative.

As for the roof, council members agreed they prefer the picnic shelter/warming house to match the roofs of other park domains, which are made of steel. According to Councilor Kevin Kodada, asphalt shingles would last about 20 to 25 years but steel shingles would last 10 to 15 more years on top of that. The council agreed to maintain consistency.

Construction of the park building will take place from the end of May until the beginning of September, according to the timeline. Grading work will start this month as well as underground utility work, and the ice rink and sidewalks will come together over the summer.

A clean audit

The city of Lonsdale has maintained financial standards for another year, resulting in a clean audit.

Ryan Schmidt, CPA of Shlenner Wenner & Co., presented to the City Council its audited financial statements during Thursday’s virtual meeting and said he found “no real difficulties during the audit.”

The city’s cash and investments increased by 8.26%, or $239,000, from 2018 to 2019, with an ending fund balance of $3.1 million in reserves. According to Schmidt, city expenses were under budget due to fewer expenditures for fire department capital outlay.

According to the financial statements Schmidt shared, the city’s revenues exceeded the budget last year. Greater collections of property taxes, assessments, and fire contract revenues contributed to this result. Operating revenues in 2019 were $2.9 million, and operating expenses were $2.6 million.

As far as remaining governmental funds are concerned, the city saw an overall decrease of about $13,000 in the Business Park debt fund as well as a decrease of about $300,000 in the Area 5 Capital Improvement Project debt fund. Schmidt said the debt in the statement has an associated revenue stream and a plan in place to pay off the debt, so there were “no real concerns in that regard.”

Similar to last year, Schmidt said the one weakness in the audit was the city’s lack of segregation duties, which means some staff members have a little more access to financial data than what Schmidt considers ideal. However, with fewer staff members than larger cities, Schmidt said this situation isn’t a big concern for Lonsdale.

Overall, Schmidt said, “[Lonsdale’s] fund balance is pretty strong, and operations seem to be generating sufficient revenues.”

Small spaces create big needs for Lonsdale Police Department

“It looks clustered” is the way Lonsdale Police Chief Jason Schmitz summarizes the current state of the Lonsdale Police Department, a facility about 1,900 square feet with the garage included.

A lack of storage space is one of the biggest concerns at the department, so much that he and the other officers stack supplies on top of shelves throughout the building.

“Even in our evidence room, we lack space there,” said Schmitz. “There’s certain ways we could be a lot more efficient, but we can’t with the way the building is designed and set up.”

Many of the current issues with the police department are directly related to a lack of space, but now that the city of Lonsdale plans to build a larger station on land it recently bought purchased near the 15th Avenue NE and Commerce Drive SE intersection, Schmitz looks forward to more room in the future.

The Lonsdale City Council agreed that the city would issue general obligation capital improvement bonds to pay for the project. With that payment option, the project is subject to a reverse referendum initiated by 5% of voters in the last city election, which took place in November 2019. Since 136 voters participated in the last city election, it would take seven voters to trigger a reverse referendum, where voters could choose whether they want the police station project to go forward. The city would then need to pay for the election.

“There is a risk with the reverse referendum, but this is something that’s been talked about over and over,” Councilor Scott Pelava said during an April 16 City Council meeting. “… I’m not worried about someone trying to push against it. I think everyone realizes [a new police station] needs to happen.”

Schmitz can’t offer tours of the police station due to the coronavirus, but he can offer visual descriptions to give residents a picture of the building’s interior.

The building includes the patrol room, Schmitz’s office, the records office, an interview room, the lobby and an open space for lockers and cabinets. Officers don’t have a separate space to change in and out of their uniforms, so they either change in the patrol room or in the landing to the basement stairs. None of the Lonsdale officers are female, but if they were, Schmitz said they wouldn’t have a space of their own where they could change clothes.

Extra storage space is a need, not only for miscellaneous office items, but for evidence intake and processing equipment. Schmitz said that leaves officers little choice but to process evidence in their work space, a potentially dangerous practice. Schmitz said he’s especially concerned about officers coming into unsafe contact with narcotics laced with the potent opioid, fentanyl, in a work space where they often eat lunch. Having an evidence room and an evidence processing area will make a huge difference and reduce chances of harmful exposure, said Schmitz.

The Lonsdale Police Department doesn’t have a break room, either. Instead, the patrol room basically serves as a break room, evidence processing room, meeting room, storage room and changing room all in one.

“At times we’re dealing with different water issues and leaks in the building,” said Schmitz. “Officers use the bathroom to wash their dishes. It’s not an ideal situation.”

The garage, about 800 square feet, is also a tight squeeze for the two squad cars that barely fit inside together. To make them both fit, Schmitz said one needs to be driven inside and the other backed in. Officers can’t open one squad car door fully without hitting the other, he said.

The limited space in the building also reduces opportunities to expand the department. Schmitz said three employees work in the current building at a time, but there are six full-time and one part-time officer as well as one receptionist who circulate in and out of the facility. The new police station would allow more space for a part-time investigator, which Schmitz would like to see in the eventually.

“We’re basically looking at building for the future,” said Schmitz. “We don’t want to build something that meets (our needs) now but in 10 years when we’re growing and we need to add on.”

Boards temporarily waive penalties for late tax payments

Residents struggling financially due to the novel coronavirus will get a short reprieve this year when tax time rolls around.

Both the Rice and Dakota County Boards of Commissioners this week agreed to waive some penalties for first half property taxes due May 15. While the May 15 deadline is set in state statute and can’t be modified by boards of commissioners, the boards can adjust penalties for late tax payments.

Rice County taxpayers who pay in full by July 30 won’t be penalized, following board action Tuesday.

In Dakota County, taxpayers have until July 15, but only for non-escrowed residential, agricultural, vacant rural, open space, apartment, commercial and industrial property. Taxes paid through an escrow service, and properties classified as utility, railroad, machinery and transmission lines are excluded from the waiver.

Anyone paying their taxes after those dates will be subject to customary penalties.

Rice County Property Tax Administrator Denise Anderson recommended the modification to her board, noting that some area residents have been hit hard financially by the coronavirus, and that this temporary reprieve could give those in need some breathing room.

For others, she asked that they make payments on time.

“All that can pay, please pay, because the schools, the cities and the need your tax dollars,” she said.

Dakota County, in a new release, made a similar statement: “Property owners who are able to pay their property taxes by the due date are encouraged to do so to help support county, school and city responses to COVID-19.”

The Steele County Board of Commissioners approved a similar resolution earlier this month.

TCU High School Assistant Principal Jeff Eppen in August 2017 introduces himself to the crowd of parents and students. (County News file photo)