With social distancing still a vital part of Minnesota’s defense against COVID-19, regular Memorial Day services throughout the region have been drastically scaled back.
In Owatonna, this means the cancelation of the Memorial Day parade and accompanying program at the Four Seasons Centre. Determined to show proper respect and recognition, however, the local VFW Auxiliary — in cooperation with the Owatonna American Legion — will still pulled together a smaller service to be held in the VFW parking lot.
“We were trying to plan on getting the community more involved by decorating their yards or houses patriotically, and we wanted to do something in Central Park with budding poppies, but we couldn’t quite get that together this year,” said Sarah Escamilla, auxiliary president. “That will all be on the back burner for next year when we have more time, but it is really important for us that we still recognize and educate others on Memorial Day and what it’s all about.”
The VFW Color Guard will raise the American flag in front of the VFW at 9 a.m. Monday and perform the traditional rifle salute. Escamilla said that the public is welcome to attend, though attendees are asked to either remain in their vehicles or practice safe social distancing throughout the parking lot.
“Memorial Day isn’t just about barbecues and camping and partying, and I know in Minnesota it’s hard to remember that because it’s really our first weekend of summer, but it’s more than that,” Escamilla said. “The VFW and the Legion feel it’s our duty to educate others and recognize this day.”
Escamilla said that KRFO will host a short Memorial Day program Monday as well, where they will read the names of area veterans who have died in the last year — also known as the “last roll call.” The laying of the flags on veterans graves will still be performed by volunteers who feel comfortable doing so throughout the weekend, with the large flags at the Owatonna Memorial Gardens being placed on Friday.
Though this Memorial Day will look quite different from past years, Brandon Noble with the Owatonna American Legion agreed with Escamilla that not recognizing the day wasn’t a real option.
“We’re at one of those key points in time where everyone will look back and remember,” said Noble, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2005 to 2010. “The pages of future history books are being written before our eyes, and it’s important not to forget that there were many chapters before what’s going on in the world now.”
“People are full of worry about what the current of future portions of the book are going to entail, but there were brave men and women who couldn’t foresee any of these issues we are facing,” he continued. “They didn’t care about what was in front of them, all they cared about was what — and more importantly who — they had left behind them and what they were fighting for. That type of selflessness for your fellow humans is something we should never let fear and uncertainty overshadow.”
For families at home who are looking for ways to honor veterans this Memorial Day, Escamilla suggests visiting a cemetery and taking a moment to take in the flags that represent those who have served. She also recommends looking back in your family tree and finding those who have served in the military.
The Blooming Prairie VFW Color Guard will also be raising the flag and doing a small prayer and traditional rifle salute at 11 a.m. Monday.
The reconstruction of Medford’s Main Street, which has sparked controversy and opposition from area residents, may be delayed. But the City Council has six months to decide how — or whether — it wants to put the project on temporary hold.
The project, which has been the source of some tension between city officials and a handful of Main Street residents who disagree with certain elements of the proposed design, is scheduled to start in spring 2021.
Because Main Street is part of state Highway 45, the county will cover 75% of the cost on all state aid eligible items, with the remaining 25% (urban amenities like sidewalks, streetlights and the like) falling to the city. The total estimated project cost is currently $2.71 million, which includes soft costs such as engineering, administration, legal and bonding.
Several alternatives have been provided by City Engineer Joe Duncan with Bolton & Menk, but the City Council has yet to approve a final design. A public hearing on the feasibility report was schedule for April, but had to be rescheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The public hearing was rescheduled and held Wednesday afternoon, with resident asked to submit comments and questions, or phone in to comply with the state restrictions on gatherings of 10 or more.
During the public hearing, several residents asked the council consider delaying the project for a year or more due to the ongoing hardships related to the COVID-19 pandemic. John Anhorn, a Main Street resident and owner of Anhorn’s Gas and Tire, spoke passionately about how tearing Main Street apart next summer could be the end of Medford’s downtown.
“We have gone through a number of years of distress on our business community,” Anhorn said. “We lost several years during the Central Avenue project, and last summer was finally a good summer, but this summer will be a COVID summer. If the following summer is construction you will just be handcuffing us further financially.”
Anhorn said that the uncertainty of COVID-19 and related restrictions during the pandemic has changed the Main Street project. In the past, Anhorn was among those in the community concerned over the size of the project that included replacing the water main and adding sidewalks.
Other residents echoed Anhorn’s concerns, as well as several members of City Council. Council member Matt Dempsey said that he would like to see the project delayed a year or two because of the unknown effect the coronavirus will continue to have on the economy and individuals’ finances. Council member Marie Sexton agreed, but shared concerned over the county still sharing the expenses if the project was postponed.
“I feel that if we were to defer the project it could make it a little more palatable and financially feasible,” Sexton said. “I have never worked on a project before with so many people having so many issues with the plan and we clearly need to look at that, but with COVID nobody knows where this is all going.”
County Engineer Greg Ilkka told the council that if they choose to delay the project by a year or two that he would support holding the money until then, though ultimately it would be the Steele County Board of Commissioners final decision.
Mayor Lois Nelson proposed that any decision on the project — including the final design or whether or not the project will indeed take place in 2021 — be tabled for up to six months. The council approved the motion in a 4-1 vote, with the opposing vote coming from Council member Chad Langeslag.
Langeslag voted no, citing opposition to the project’s design.
With its voter-approved operating levy set to expire next year, an Owatonna Public Schools referendum will be back on the ballot this fall, as the district look to expand or at least renew local revenue.
Citing the fact that state funding hasn’t kept pace with inflation, the School Board is exploring ways to increase its levy while factoring in the burden COVID-19 has placed on many in the district.
At a Wednesday work session, administrators laid out the situation for officials, noting with the current seven-year levy expiring in June 2021, this fall is the last chance to renew that funding before facing serious cuts. Options for the November ballot include a straightforward renewal of the current levy, an annual increase of roughly $600 per student off the bat, or a one-year reprieve and then gradual increase of taxpayers’ contributions through what the district terms a shared approach.
The latter option, which currently seems to be favored by most board members, a property valued at $175,000 would see a $120 annual tax increase starting in 2022. In the back half of the proposed 10-year levy, that would double — meaning a $240 yearly increase over the current levy payment. This would translate to an additional $300 per student in years two through four, working its way up to the desired $600 per student increase in years five through 10.
While School Board members have until June 29 to decide which option they prefer and how they would like it presented, there seemed to be unanimous this week on a two-question ballot — asking first for a renewal and then for an increase, in hopes that at least the renewal would pass in November.
If the renewal itself fails, the district will lose roughly $483 per student and, according to district finance director Amanda Heilman, would need to make $8.5 million in cuts over the next three years to offset those losses. Currently, the district receives $1,207 per student from taxpayers each year. It’s able to levy a base amount of $724 without going to the voter, and then combine it with the $483 per student approved under the current voter-approved levy.
In either case where an increase is not approved, Superintendent Jeff Elstad said the district would need to return to voters again in the coming years to seek a larger levy.
“Let’s say the renewal were to pass but the increase wasn’t approved, the cuts probably aren’t as drastic in one year’s timeframe as they would have been if the renewal didn’t pass, but the cuts will still happen,” he added. “It’s just a slower bleed for the district.”
Building bonds took precedence
If only the renewal passed, Heilman estimated the district would have to go back out to voters for an increase in 2023, at the latest. Both she and Elstad termed this upcoming ballot question a “last-chance levy,” with the current funding source in its last year. While she said it’s possible to renew before a levy’s term is up, building projects in the district have taken precedence in the last five years over trying to increase operating revenue.
In both 2015 and 2019, district taxpayers approved two building bond referendums — first for security measures and building additions, and most recently for a new high school set to open in 2023. Distinct from operating funds, this money can only be used for the designated facilities projects and isn’t able to be transferred to help cover the cost of operations. Relatedly, agricultural land is taxed differently in building and operating referendums. For an operating levy, only the house, garage and 1 acre are taxed.
If only a renewal were to pass, Heilman forecasted that the district would have a negative fund balance by 2026 — meaning this emergency funding source wouldn’t be able to cover any portion of the district’s annual expenditures. If the renewal itself were to fail, even with significant cuts, the balance could reach -10% by the end of this decade without further action.
“Why having an unreserved fund balance is necessary is, in the event that we would have some sort of tragedy or emergency where we’re not able to get funding from the state, that reserve is there to protect us, to pay our bills and pay our employees for a short period of time,” said Elstad.
State funding gap
The proposed increase for local taxpayers is due in large part to the fact that funding from the state hasn’t kept up with inflation over the last decade and beyond.
“There’s currently a $583 per pupil unit gap because the state funding formula is not keeping pace with inflation,” said Heilman. “With the fact that [the state] is projecting a $2.4 billion deficit, I’m not seeing that that’s going to improve any time soon. We’ll likely see some additional gaps going forward.”
Heilman added that most districts’ expenditures are going up by roughly 3% each year due in large part to inflation, while state funding is not matching that percentage. In Owatonna, roughly 80% of the district’s revenue comes from the state.
Each of the three proposed plans also includes cuts on the district’s part. With the $600 annual per pupil increase, Heilman projected that the district would still need to make roughly $4.5 million in reductions over the next three years to keep reserves healthy. With the shared approach, this number would rise to $5.25 million.
Board favors gradual approach
After discussing the issue at Wednesday’s work session, board members will have until their June 29 regular meeting to think about which option they prefer — asking for the full increase from the start, gradually working up to it through the shared approach or seeking only a renewal.
“I think we need to just ask for the renewal first, just because the consequences of not renewing are so drastic,” said Board member Timothy Jensen, “and then whatever we choose as a second question makes sense to me.”
After deciding which option they’d like to see on the ballot in June, district staff will finalize the language and it will be back up for a last vote from the board in July. Once the questions are set, district residents will vote on the referendum this fall in the Nov. 3 election.