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Rice, Steele County food shelves see reduction in volunteers during COVID-19
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Community Pathways of Steele County had 105 volunteers earlier this year, but that was before the coronavirus outbreak presented a particular health risk for older adults.

Understandably, many older adults at greater risk of illness took a break from volunteering in the early months of the pandemic. Fifteen volunteers have returned, but that isn’t enough to restore the shelf’s Saturday hours. According to Pathways Executive Director Nancy Ness, it will be quite some time before weekend hours resume.

“Staff is picking up open shifts, making sure everyone is getting served correctly, just ensuring this place is operating correctly,” Ness said. “It’s kind of hard to ask people to work on Saturdays when by the time Friday comes, we’re all pretty tired and worn out.”

Community Pathways isn’t the only local food shelf struggling to recruit and maintain volunteers during the pandemic. Northfield Community Action Center and the Lonsdale Area Food Shelf are also short on help, and the up and coming food shelf in Faribault will need volunteers in the weeks ahead as well.

At the Northfield Community Action Center, Program Director Annika Rychner said volunteers are needed now more than ever.

“I think with the rising levels of COVID, people are really not excited to come out of their homes, which they shouldn’t be, but we need them in order to keep our program running,” Rychner said.

To ensure volunteers’ safety, the CAC has a page on its website detailing its COVID-19 response, including social distancing guidelines, sanitizing procedures and other safety protocols. If prospective volunteers feel reluctant to step up, they can also contact the CAC at volunteer@communityactioncenter.org with questions. Opportunities are both mobile and in person, outside distributing products into vehicles or inside organizing food shelf items.

At Community Pathways, Ness said ideally volunteers contribute three hours of their week to helping out. They might help sort clothing donations, like in a retail setting, do the shopping for clients’ monthly food supply or simply man the front door. Social distancing and masks are required to protect volunteers and the community.

Ness has found that high school students doing distance learning sometimes have three hours to volunteer, if they only have half a day of classes.

“That’s been nice because they have a lot of energy,” Ness said. “We’ve been doing this now for eight months, and it wears us out, so having new volunteers is a benefit for us. We’re also finding stay-at-home moms are coming in to help.”

The Lonsdale Area Food Shelf (LAFS) has a unique dilemma: finding volunteers available from 11:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. on Thursdays — the shelf’s only open day during COVID-19. Since the small facility makes social distancing more difficult, only four people may volunteer at a time. Volunteers are asked to help at LAFS at least a couple times per month.

“The hard part is the Thursdays [criteria] because fortunately so many people are still able to work, and those who aren’t seem to be part of the senior population who need to be staying home and staying safe,” said Tami Heimer, LAFS executive director.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions on building capacity, Heimer said LAFS needed to make the hard decision to not allow children to volunteer with their parents for the time being. She would be open to interviewing available high school students, however, since a few volunteered at the shelf during the summer months.

An up and coming food shelf in Faribault, which moved into its space at 1400 Cannon Circle last week, will soon need volunteers to pack boxes of food and produce on the day of distribution. Volunteers will either place food into vans or go out for deliveries.

The food shelf doesn’t have a name yet, but a number of community organizations that made it possible refer to the project as the Faribault Food Access Initiative. Friday marked the first mobile distribution, and Rychner said, “We have so much food going out we have to rent a U-Haul and a transit.”

Donations and other needs

Those who want to help local food shelves but can’t volunteer might consider making donations instead.

Both Community Pathways and LAFS prefer monetary donations since their distributor, Channel One Regional Food Bank in Rochester, currently offers big discounts on food items.

“Channel One has received a lot of food due to COVID, so there’s different avenues for them to receive this food; some of it is no cost,” Community Pathways’ Ness said. “We have a good supply of food and are actually increasing the amount of food we give people now and hopefully through the Christmas season.”

Ness said money is also preferred because when Community Pathways receives food donations, items need to be separated for three days in case of COVID-19 exposure.

Community Pathways also collects winter apparel, especially coats and boots, from 9 a.m. to noon each Friday.

Those who want to make donations to the CAC may visit the website and find a list of the 5 Most Wanted CAC Food Shelf Items, which changes throughout the seasons. Currently, those items include shelf-stable proteins like peanut butter, canned meat and fish, canned and dried beans and plant-based proteins; cooking items like sugar, oil, condiments, spices and flour; fruits and vegetables that are canned, dried, fresh or frozen; grains like pasta, rice, flour and whole grains; and monetary donations.

Food aside, Rycher also recommended donors consider giving paper towels, toilet paper, dish soap, laundry detergent, diapers, wipes, formula and personal feminine hygiene products, which can be expensive and can’t be purchased with SNAP Food Assistance/food stamps.

Holiday initiatives

Some local food shelves have needed to cancel their holiday endeavors due to the pandemic, but others have adjusted plans to fit health and safety guidelines.

At LAFS, Heimer said clients already registered for both the Thanksgiving meal pick-up and the Christmas wish list program for children. Instead of volunteers distributing the Thanksgiving meals on one day, clients have picked up their meal preparation packages throughout the month of November. The Lonsdale SnoWizards’ monetary donation funded the meals for the project.

The Lonsdale SnoWizards contributed a large donation to the Lonsdale Area Food Shelf to fund clients’ Thanksgiving meals. The SnoWizards helped distribute the materials last year, as pictured, but clients will instead pick up their meals during the pandemic this year. Pictured from left: SnoWizards members Mike and Jessica Lundeen, LAFS Thanksgiving program co-chairs Carol Franek and Vi Miller and SnoWizard member Andrea Motz. (File photo/southernminn.com)

Plans are already underway for the LAFS Christmas project. This year, children of client families will receive gifts from anonymous community members who already received their wish lists from local churches or organizations. Adults in the families’ households will also receive a surprise gift to pick up in mid-December along with the children’s gifts.

St. Vincent de Paul Society in Faribault is also making Christmas special for its client families by distributing gifts and toys. Clients and their families, including grandparents of client children, and anyone who qualifies for food and clothing assistance at St. Vincent de Paul may register for a Christmas box by calling by the St. Vincent office at 507-334-2100 or completing a registration form, available at the office, and returning it to the drop box at St. Vincent.

Families may include wish lists for children in their registration as well as the ages, genders, shoe sizes and clothing sizes of children ages 1 through 14. This will help volunteers know the appropriate gifts to package. Boxes will also include some hygiene products.

St. Vincent de Paul Society will arrange appointments for families to pick up their boxes at the northwest door of the building starting Nov. 27.

Property owners give proposed Northfield franchise fees mixed reviews
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Northfield residents expressed mixed feelings on whether the city should shift from assessing impacted property owners for street projects to a yearly fee assessed all parcels in town. Also discussed was whether revenue from the proposed should be used for climate-reducing initiatives.

In a statement delivered to the Northfield City Council prior to a Nov. 17 meeting, Armory Square Event Center co-owner Liz Reppe noted the change does not protect property owners “from excessive amounts charged back for street work,” adding she doesn’t see how property owners could appeal and challenge franchise fee amounts under the new system. She also expressed apprehension at funding work undertaken at other properties after already paying thousands of dollars in street assessments for her property.

“This is the very worst time for the city to cause property owners to pay more for their utilities,” she said. “This is particularly true for commercial properties, most of which are really suffering financially during COVID.”

The Northfield City Council took the first step in shifting from assessments during its Nov. 10 meeting. The 4-3 vote came after councilors were split on allowing for $100,000 in franchise fee revenue to be used for climate initiatives. Mayor Rhonda Pownell and councilors Brad Ness and David DeLong voted no. Due to a language adjustment made during the Nov. 17 meeting, the council pushed back possible final approval to early December.

Northfield City Administrator Ben Martig noted residential property owners would pay $5.50 per month in franchise fees and commercial businesses $16.50; however, he said larger commercial customers and those with more than one property could incur significantly higher fees and should contact Xcel Energy to verify anticipated costs. Property owners with outstanding assessments would be rebated franchise fees on an annual basis. The estimated cost to implement franchise fees is $50,000 per year beginning in 2022 and decreasing $5,000 every year.

To Reppe, though the city routinely discusses how tax increases impacts the average homeowner, it must also value commercial property owners and their contributions made through taxes and providing employment and work to improve the city.

“This appears to be another situation in which commercial property owners are bearing the brunt of city fees/taxes,” she added. “I understand that there are more residential property owners (voters), but the commercial property owners will suffer major increases in fees under the system.”

Carleton College, considered a major property owner within Northfield, submitted a comment to Finance Director Brenda Angelstad prior to the meeting. The comments, though supportive of a franchise fee and a rebate for those who are paying street assessments, expressed concerns.

“Doing so would help streamline the city’s annual street improvement process, relieve the burden on individual homeowners and small businesses, and support the city’s climate action plan,” college officials wrote.

“Under the proposed fee structure, Carleton’s average monthly electric bill would increase by 1 percent and our average monthly gas bill by 9 percent. The additional monthly gas percentage calculated by the college is exceptionally high. At this time, the college does not support this flat gas fee increase and seeks clarification about why this percentage is so high.”

College officials noted Carleton paid nearly $400,000 in assessments related to the mill and overlay project, meaning the college’s total property tax obligation this year is $629,000 — No. 2 in the city for assessments and property taxes paid in 2020.

The most commonly discussed advantage to franchise fees is that all properties — including those that are considered tax exempt, like schools, churches and government buildings — are charged franchise fees. The fee diversifies city revenue sources, potentially reducing any reliance on property taxes, local government aid and assessments. Franchise fees provide a reliable revenue source, are considered easy to administer, and there are no administrative costs charged by utility companies who collect the fees.

Some of the disadvantages Martig discussed include the rate is the same regardless of the value of a property or the utility use. However, franchise fees are seen as possibly posing a financial hardship on commercial businesses, and like property taxes, seen as possibly making a city less desirable than surrounding communities without franchise fees.

Northfield resident Barbara Evans wrote of her support of adding a franchise fee — but only for street assessments.

“Although I’m in favor of the climate proposal, I think that that is a city decision and a city matter that can be adjusted as needed and is a city expense,” she said. “The street assessments to individuals for street repair and curb and gutter is much more of a thing that comes at a homeowner like a shot.”

The addition of $100,000 in revenue to help implement climate action plan initiatives is considered a way for Northfield to achieve carbon-neutrality by 2040. The additional $100,000 is estimated to increase fees on a commercial property by $6 annually.

Fellow Northfielder James Clinton said he was “surprised” to see the proposed flat rate residential franchise fee, seen by some as regressive, after officials have consistently pushed for more affordable living options. Clinton said he supported either sticking with the current special assessment approach until questions related to the impact the tax would have on businesses are addressed, or passing a uniform property tax increase and refunding those who have paid past assessments.

‘A permanent shift’

Martig noted the council intends for franchise fees to completely replace special assessment revenue. He said franchise fees “are common in other communities,” including a number of cities that charge both special assessments and on top of that franchise fees.”

He said past data indicates Northfield’s city property taxes are considered amongst the lowest of peer cities in Minnesota.

“This is not a program that should change regularly but rather a permanent shift in how we finance a portion (about 20%-30% of street reconstruction projects,” he said. “The remaining portion will continue to be funded through the city property taxes. Technically, to change the use of the franchise fee would require a public hearing and two ordinance readings at a minimum. It is very unlikely to switch back in the future, but this council can’t stop future councils from changing from a legal standpoint.”

40 to 50 Northfield Hospital staff out daily due to COVID-19
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With 40-50 employees out each day due to COVID-19 or exposure to the virus, Northfield Hospital and Clinics President and CEO Steve Underdahl is emphasizing the danger of community spread and its impact on the work environment to staff and the public.

The staffing shortages are across the board, and he said, however alarming, are “manageable.” If the shortages worsen, he said NH+C might need to make “some really hard decisions.” He noted the recent surge has taken its toll on staff members physically and psychologically. Most staff care for family members, including older adults and children.

Any exposure, even if minimal, could disrupt a small department, he said during a Thursday Hospital Board meeting. Despite the time frontline health workers spend with people who test positive for the virus in a hospital setting, he said the greater danger comes when staff is exposed to asymptomatic transmitters of the virus away from work.

“That’s why personal precautions are so crucial right now: Wear a mask, keep your distance, avoid gatherings, stay home if you’re sick,” Underdahl said. “These are the best ways to prevent spread, and it takes all of us to make them effective. I know people are fatigued with this pandemic and just want to get back to normal, especially with the holidays coming. Truth is, until a vaccine is widely available, the best way we can fight COVID is to each be responsible for our own behavior.”

Chief Financial Officer Scott Edin said Thursday NH+C was $266,000 over budget for salaries in October alone due to hiring additional screeners and backfilling for quarantined staff.

Underdahl said all U.S. medical facilities are grappling with possibly dangerous staffing shortages as case numbers and deaths continue to rise across the Upper Midwest. As of late last week, the Mayo Clinic Health System has seen a “very rapid rise” in COVID-19 cases and the hospitals in the Mankato region are feeling the impact on their medical and surgical bed availability. Its Mankato and Waseca hospitals were at 100% of their capacity on Friday, the New Prague hospital was at 94% capacity, the Fairmont hospital was at 96% capacity and the St. James hospital was at 92% capacity.

In Rice County alone, 140 newly reported confirmed cases were listed from Thursday to Friday. As of Friday, 29 COVID-19 deaths were reported within the county. Of those, 16 came in long-term care facilities, 11 in private residences, and two in a prison setting.

Due to the surge in cases, NH+C is monitoring its capacity three times a day for the number of patients, staffing levels and demand for beds. Underdahl said NH+C will use those benchmarks to activate emergency plans if needed, using surge plans created last spring.

Positive case rate drastically increases at NH+C

The seven-day rolling average of positive cases at Northfield Hospital and Clinics has reportedly increased from less than 3% at the end of September to nearly 16%. Underdahl noted one-third to one-half of NH+C inpatients receiving care are either COVID-19 positive or have symptoms that warrant further investigation.

Recently, three Long Term Care staff and one resident tested positive for the virus.

Dakota County having a test positivity rate of more than 10%, requiring NH+C to test staff two times per week. The hospital system is emphasizing video visits, increasing the capacity of the respiratory clinic and testing to better treat the virus. NH+C screens for the virus at each entrance. Masks are required in each building along with social distancing in waiting rooms, personal protective equipment, extra cleaning and sanitizing. Underdahl noted the hospital system ramps up or winds down precautions as needed. NH+C tightened restrictions starting Nov. 10 and restricted visitors beginning Nov. 17. NH+C has increased clinic care for respiratory conditions, with separate respiratory care available in Northfield, Lonsdale, Lakeville and Faribault clinics — plus Urgent Care by appointment in Lakeville.

Underdahl noted hospitals across the region are transferring patients when needed to where beds, staffing and equipment are available. As an example, he said NH+C will transfer a patient who needs a ventilator to a larger facility with a vent unit. NH+C also receives transfers from other hospitals for patients who fit the level of care the health system provides.

Underdahl said he is encouraged by successful initial vaccine testing results from prescription drug manufacturers Moderna and Pfizer. Despite the pending mass availability of the vaccine, Underdahl anticipates the virus will take a “terrible” toll over the next 100 days.

In response to the surging virus, Gov. Tim Walz instituted new restrictions last week, including limiting bars and restaurants to take out for at least four weeks and closing fitness centers. There has been pushback to his proposal. Protestors gathered Saturday at the governor’s mansion to show their disdain for the new restrictions. Also, Chanhassen-based Life Time Fitness has filed a public records request seeking information on how the state traced any spread of the virus to gymnasiums, fitness facilities or pools.

DJJD Committee: Riverfront Enhancement Plan places celebration at risk
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Defeat of Jesse James Days organizers say Northfield’s draft Riverfront Enhancement Plan, while calling for changes to the downtown district as a way to make the community a more desirable place to live, jeopardizes the future of the city’s signature celebration.

Main components of the plan, introduced during a Sept. 9 meeting, call for the city to entirely develop Ames Park on the northeast corner of Fifth Street and Hwy. 3, start planning for a multi-use building for Babcock Park/rodeo grounds, and implementing canoe/kayak water access for the Cannon River. Another major component of the plan calls for the city to complete its local/regional trail system by planning and installing a comprehensive wayfinding system, and connecting Ames to Sechler Park. However, organizers say those changes would jeopardize the DJJD carnival, car show, truck and tractor pull, and rodeo, which are held on those sites.

A five-day event that honors the townsfolk’s defeat of the notorious bank robbers, the James-Younger Gang, DJJD attracts nearly 250,000 visitors every year to the city.

While firm timelines and cost estimates have not been established for most of the proposed Riverfront projects, the Northfield City Council could approve the draft plan Dec. 1.

The DJJD Committee first posted its concerns late last month on Facebook. The committee said in the 20 months of planning it hadn’t been consulted or told of the possible impact the plan could have on the annual celebration.

“Since the celebration began in 1948, it has seen many changes, but one thing the committee has learned over those years — after trying new and different ideas, faced modifications due to construction and flooding issues — is that the celebration is most successful when all events are held in downtown Northfield, or within walking distance of downtown,” DJJD organizers wrote. “The events impacted by these proposed changes do not have alternate location options that fit that criteria.”

In a reply message, the city noted it is “a proud partner of Defeat of Jesse James Days and values the community gathering each year.” According to the city, the Riverfront Action Plan is not considered a construction plan document but instead “is intended to create enthusiasm and key actions to further enhance Northfield’s riverfront parks into an exciting regional experience.”

“Engaging with property owners and key users before advancing major improvements is recognized as an important future step to facilitate successful implementation,” official wrote. “There will be many opportunities to further explore how future plans can advance the goals of DJJD and the vision to expand more year-round activity.”

During a Nov. 17 council meeting, Community Development Director Mitzi Baker said the plan will likely be implemented over at least 10 to 20 years, adding that when each action is ready to advance, user groups like the DJJD Committee, property owners and other stakeholders will be engaged. Baker noted the city held listening sessions at the beginning of the year, solicited feedback and engaged in discussion at the community board level, adding other anticipated public engagement has not taken place due to the pandemic.

“It is possible some of the DJJD activities could co-exist with final designs and still support year-round activation of the parks,” Baker said. “Future design and coordination initiatives will be necessary to resolve outstanding questions for each of the project areas.”

During the council meeting, DJJD Committee Chair Galen Malecha said he is looking forward to an upcoming meeting with Northfield City Administrator Ben Martig, Mayor Rhonda Pownell and Riverfront Enhancement Committee members.

“There’s a lot of anxiety on our part,” he said of the proposal.

The Riverwalk, built along both sides of the Cannon River over an approximately quarter-mile stretch in the downtown, is often called the “crown jewel” of Northfield. But it’s one of the few places in the city where the river is incorporated into the design and used as an amenity.

The Northfield City Council approved forming the Riverfront Enhancement Advisory Committee during a November 2018 meeting. The committee was tasked with developing plans and action steps the city could take to better utilize the Cannon River, which cuts through Northfield’s heart. Making improvements along the riverfront was a specific goal listed under economic development within the city’s 2018-20 strategic plan. The committee determined what areas of the river/riverfront should be targeted for improvement and suggested ways to do so.

The plan includes completing the Mill Towns Trail, adding bike lanes to downtown bridges and mowing the temporary trail on city land along the west side of the Cannon River. The plan also calls for the city to explore the transfer of the Ames Mill Dam, owned by Post Consumer Brands/Malt-O-Meal, to the city and transforming it into “an exciting and rare whitewater experience.” The plan suggests conducting a dam study recommended by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources staff, assessing alternatives for the future of the dam and applying for grant funding for the new dam’s design and construction.

Promoting the city’s economic development and its role as a tourist destination is also included. Immediate action could include exploring incentives to improve the riverside facades of downtown buildings, working with one or more businesses on pilot projects and applying for grant funding. The plan also calls for the city to begin the application process to apply for formal state designation as a regional park by June 30.