Firefighters battled a house fire near Mineral Springs Park in subzero temperatures Thursday.
The Owatonna Fire Department was called to 1804 North Brook Place NE just before noon Thursday. The homeowners reported smoke coming out of the roof vent near the chimney attached to the fireplace, according to Owatonna Fire Chief Mike Johnson. The homeowners and their dog were able to safely evacuate their home before first responders arrived.
“By the time we arrived, we found smoke entirely throughout the second floor, in the attic and around the fireplace and chimney encasement,” Johnson said. “We were able to start an offensive interior fire attack on the second floor and also laddered to the roof to attack the fire from the exterior.”
Because the fire advanced rapidly throughout the structure, Johnson said firefighters had to exit the home and focus their efforts on the exterior attack. Mutual aid was requested from Medford, Waseca and Faribault Fire departments.
“We were able to knock down the fire and re-enter the structure again,” Johnson said.
Due to the severe cold weather, Mayo Ambulance was on scene evaluating firefighters as they worked. Johnson said winter weather conditions enhances the difficulties and dangers of battling fires, including dealing with freezing water and snow on and around the structure, but all the firefighters on scene were trained and performed excellently.
“These tough conditions make our work very hard, but our firefighters do this job because they want to serve their community, including on days like this when it is extremely cold out,” Johnson said. “All the firefighters and all the mutual aid did a very good job, operated safely, and in the end we were able to get the fire out safely.”
Firefighters were on the scene throughout Thursday afternoon working the “fire overhaul” to put out hot spots and left the scene at about 5:20 p.m.
While a cause of the fire is yet to be determined, Johnson said they can confirm that it began in the chimney connected to the home’s fireplace. The damage estimate wasn’t known as of Thursday afternoon.
Owatonna Public Utilities and Owatonna Police also responded to the scene.
The 4,100-square-foot, five-bedroom house was constructed in 1988, according to Steele County property records.
Owatonna Superintendent Jeff Elstad is supporting a proposed change to state law that would allow school board members to renew a school district’s current operating levy instead of going to the voters for approval.
Elstad shared the experience with renewing the operating levy in Owatonna while he testified in favor of the bill, House File 292, before the House Education Finance Committee on Thursday morning. Other proponents who testified on Thursday included Mounds View Superintendent Chris Lennox and Robbinsdale School Board Director John Veto. No one testified in opposition to the bill. A motion was made to lay the bill over for possible inclusion in future legislation or further consideration at a later date and no vote was taken by the legislators Thursday.
The proposed legislation would give school board members the same rights as their city and county counterparts to make decisions about renewing the operating levy following a public hearing. The bill places limits on when a school board would be able to renew a levy without seeking approval from the voters, such as the per-pupil amount of the levy is the same as the expiring levy. Rep. Cedrick Frazier, D-New Hope, authored the bill.
Currently, school districts are limited in the amount for which they are allowed to levy. If a district needs to levy higher, they use the referendum revenue program.
“That levy lasts for a finite number of years and then a district must go back to the voters to renew that levy,” Frazier explained.
Frazier added that cities and counties are generally not subject to levy limits and are usually able to impose levies without voter approval. School districts are limited to levy amounts set by statute, and must seek approval for any levies above that set amount, according to Fraizer.
“This bill will allow districts to renew a current levy after input from the local community, so maintaining that voice of local control and local input,” Fraizer said, adding that the levy will have to remain at the same per pupil amount with no increase.
Proponents for the bill believe it will lead to a more efficient process and reduce the expenses in time and labor for the referendum campaign and reduce voter confusion. Passing the bill will also cut down on the amount of time and resources the district uses to seek a renewal, which was already approved by residents seven to 10 years earlier, Elstad pointed out.
Elstad shared with legislators the district’s experience with voters’ approval of the operating levy renewal this past November. The district committed about 400 staff hours this past fall to the renewal of the operating levy.
“In addition, we had $37,000 in costs for election judges and balloting costs as well as materials to obligatory materials that go out to our taxpayers,” Elstad said. “Furthermore, we believe that those staff hours equated to somewhere between the range of $100,000 to $160,000 in human resource that we had to allocate for this particular purpose.”
Elstad also discussed some of the systems in place for accountability and transparency with the taxpayers, including the annual Truth in Taxation and annual audit that is open to public forum. Additionally, the public is welcome to every school board meeting, including meetings where the board sets its preliminary budget and when they adopt the annual budget.
“I would add to that the level of responsibility that’s been required during COVID-19 has required school districts to take away precious resources from our school that could have been dedicated to the operations of school districts in challenging times such as this past school year,” Elstad said.
If the district had not been able to renew the levy last November, Elstad said they would have lost $4.5 million in funding, meaning 35 to 40 classroom teaching positions. The district already has some classrooms with sizes of 30 to 32 students, so a non-renewal could have meant much larger class sizes.
Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, expressed some concerns about the bill and transparency with taxpayers. Elstad assured Erickson that the district is in regular communication with the community and media regarding upcoming financial situations.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, asked the school officials why they couldn’t coincide perfectly with the normal general elections or the city and county elections on the off-year, effectively limiting campaign costs and creating an additional item on the ballot.
Elstad responded that operating levies aren’t always in alignment with other local elections. School districts would have to move the taxes and renewals to an earlier date, which would lessen the district’s election costs, but it wouldn’t solve the problem of taxpayers being able to say “no” to school districts’ operating levies while not being able to do that with other government bodies, Elstad said. Still, the district would still spend many hours reminding residents about the importance of those funds, which voters already approved years prior, Elstad pointed out.
While the potential realignment could relieve some election costs, Elstad said he is still concerned about the potential for voters to not support the renewal. He pointed out that additional communication would be needed for taxpayers regarding the changing year when the district would be asking for the renewal.
“I don’t believe it would take away the chance that really needed funding for school districts would not be available,” Elstad said.