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911 Center proposing mobility project in face of pandemic

It’s the middle of the night, you’re home alone and you hear a loud crash down the hall followed by footsteps and whispers. You lock yourself in your bedroom and reach for your phone.

On the other end of the line you hear, “911, what’s the location of your emergency?”

The dispatchers at the Rice Steele 911 Center are there — during a break in, a car accident, a mental health crisis and any time where you need help, stat. The job they do is vital to the communities they serve, and their operation is among one of the top priorities for community leaders.

In the face of the pandemic, however, 911 Center Administrator Jill Bondhus recognized a need almost immediately as employees in every industry and service began working remotely. In April, Bondhus approached the 911 Center Joint Powers Board with a $660,000 idea.

“This would allow us to have mobility,” Bondhus said as she explained why the the dispatch center need to be mobile. While grant options were explored for the project, none were available. That’s when Bondhus took the prioritized list of what is needed to be able to mobilize and relocate 911 Center services before the board with a request for federal CARES Act funding.

The project was discussed for several months at Joint Powers Board meetings, with plenty of questions about how the project would qualify under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Bondhus presented the board with the list of equipment and software needed to make the mobility possible, adding the ability to split staff into two groups to reduce COVID-19 exposure as a priority. Galen Malecha, Rice County commissioner and chair of the 911 Center Joint Powers Board, said he is confident that the project not only meets the guidelines for CARES Act dollars, but it needs to be considered a priority for the communities involved.

“It is our responsibility to make sure we have a functioning dispatch center to serve the needs of the citizens in an emergency situation,” Malecha said. “This is a way for us to come up with the funding to do such a project, and it’s not small amount, however how can you put a price on a human life in an emergency situation?”

Malecha said the pandemic exposed the limited capabilities within the 911 Center — located in the Law Enforcement Center in Owatonna that also houses the Steele County Sheriff’s Office and Owatonna Police Department — to be able to move to another room or another facility altogether in the face of a natural disaster or emergency. Steele County Commissioner James Brady, who also sits on the 911 Joint Powers Board, added another potential situation that could cripple the current 911 operations.

“This also ties in to the disturbance they had down at the Law Enforcement Center with the protests earlier this year,” Brady said regarding a 10-hour protest in Owatonna the weekend after the death of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police. “We have to have a way to work remotely in case there is a future fight or something happened due to civil unrest. [Dispatchers] need to be able to keep doing their job even if they are forced to move.”

According to Brady, the Law Enforcement Center received reports that protests could get out of hand in Owatonna, though nothing of the sort ever came to fruition. Regardless, Brady said the two counties cannot afford not to have a contingency plan should the building become unavailable for 911 services.

With the Faribault Police Department earmarked as a backup location for the 911 Center, Malecha said the time to invest in mobile dispatch units is now.

“The equipment has to be mobile, and we’ve discovered we don’t have all that mobile equipment to set up a second operation in case we are unable to use that Owatonna location,” Malecha said. “It has been proven that the need is there, now it is just a matter of how we make this work and how we can make it work financially for both counties.”

When the 911 Center was first established, Malecha said the Joint Powers Board put a formula in place that dictates costs to operate the center for each county based on population. Today, bills are shared 60/40 with the larger portion falling on Rice County. Malecha said the same formula will be used to determine how much CARES Act funding will come from each county.

The total project cost, as presented to the Rice County Board of Commissioners Aug. 11, totals $602,223, plus a contingency fund of $60,223. The largest cost of the project will go toward establishing four new mobile radio stations and six additional phone stations, totaling upward of $347,935. Other expenses include software, electrical work, fiber upgrades at the Faribault Police Department and labor.

As a shared venture between the counties, Steele County Commissioner Jim Abbe said maintaining the tools for the 911 dispatchers to perform their services is a high priority for both local governments.

“It is an integral part of our counties and in many cases is about life safety,” said Abbe, who is also a member of the 911 Center Joint Powers Board. “There isn’t a weakness there, our dispatchers do a fantastic job and our administrator works hard — we’re in a good spot. But [the pandemic] has opened a lot of eyes not just for 911 centers, but for a lot of areas of everyday life. This will help us be better prepared if something like this ever were to happen again.”

Brady echoed Abbe’s remarks, adding that 911 is engrained in the way society functions today.

“People have become accustomed to dialing 911 in an emergency, I don’t know how you could get by if those services were to fail,” he said. “It’s a costly project, but it’s a valuable part of our society.”

The Joint Powers Board and the Rice County Board of Commissioners have approved this project. The final remaining step will be for the project to be presented and approved by the Steele County Board of Commissioners in an upcoming meeting. That date is yet to be determined.


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Flying flags to fight cancer in Blooming Prairie

You won’t be able to overlook it … the field of pink that is.

Blooming Prairie’s annual Field of Flags display will be set up Sunday starting at 4 p.m. east of the U.S. Highway 218. The display will include 250 large pink flags to honor the lives lost to cancer, those that have survived and those that continue to fight the disease. The Blooming Prairie Cancer Group hosts the display each year.

Smaller pink flags are available for purchase for $10 in honor of a loved one who fought or is fighting cancer. Their names will be written on the flag and posted on the flagpoles.

“So every pole has someone’s name one it,” Cheri Krejci said.

Krejci has been involved in the group for about 16 years and is currently the group’s secretary/treasurer. It’s been a family fight for Krejci. She joined the group after her dad died from cancer. Later her mother would also pass from the disease. Krejci — a cancer survivor herself — says being involved in the group is a “labor of love.”

“Everybody in our group is in our group because, either themselves or someone else in their family or friends have been diagnosed with cancer in the past,” she said.

As of Thursday morning there are a few small pink flags left to purchase. Those interested in purchasing a flag can contact Krejci at 507-438-6895 or find her on Facebook.

It takes about three hours to set up all of the flags. A group of community volunteers and the local football team help pound the flag poles into the ground.

“The community support is huge in Blooming Prairie and surrounding areas. I’ve had people as far away as Chatfield and Lakeville just call and order a flag for someone,” Krejci said. “So our support is huge.”

Blooming Prairie Cancer Group raises thousands of dollars throughout the year. The money is then donated to cancer research and another portion is sent back into the community to help local cancer patients. The funds help pay for things such as gas and parking passes for cancer patients when traveling to doctor appointments. Other items funded by Blooming Prairie Cancer Group and meant to help people dealing with cancer include building a ramp, purchasing a specialized bed and helping pay utility bills.

“That community fund is a very important part of our group too,” Krejci said.

Traditionally the group also hosts a number of other events in September to raise funds. However due to the coronavirus pandemic the annual auction has been canceled. The Purse Bingo has been delayed to next April. A flower fundraising sale, gun bingo, raffle ticket sale, local crafters sale and luncheon will continue as scheduled for mid-September.

Area residents are encouraged to walk through or drive by the display of flags which will be up for two weeks, until Sept. 13.

“If you’ve never seen it you should come and drive by and check it out,” Krejci said.


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Fans pack the student’s section and cheer for the Owatonna football team prior to the Huskies’ season-opening game against Rochester Century on Aug. 30, 2019. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press, File)


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(Photo courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)


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Police ask for help in finding fountain vandals

It has been more than a month since the iconic crane that’s usually perched atop the Central Park fountain in Owatonna was damaged at the hands of someone still unknown to police.

“This investigation is still active, no arrests have been made,” said Capt. Eric Rethemeier with the Owatonna Police Department. “We encourage anyone with information related to this [incident] to contact the Owatonna Police Department Detective Bureau.”

Sometime in the overnight hours of July 11 and 12, a person or persons removed the basin of the fountain on which the cast aluminum crane sits. What happened next is also unknown, but the following morning park crews discovered the crane mangled and broken. Owatonna Parks Maintenance Manager Jesse Wilker said city mechanics were able to weld the crane back together and mask any damage with paint. Wilker said part of the fountain’s spray ring also sustained damage.

While Rethemeier couldn’t release details of where the investigation has pointed thus far, he said that property crimes can be hard to solve when there are no witnesses.

“In order to make an arrest for damage to property or any other crime, we have to establish probable cause — the facts and circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to believe that a crime has been committed and the person arrested committed the crime,” Rethemeier said.

“Often times in property crimes that are not witnessed or without any collectable evidence, it is difficult to meet the probable cause standard to make an arrest.”

Rethemeier said in the case that an arrest is made, the burden will fall on the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person arrested and charged committed the offense.

Despite the crane being fixed, the city has yet to return the bird to his rightful place at the top of the fountain. According to Troy Klecker, city community development director and interim parks and recreation director, the crane will be replaced following some pre-planned restoration work scheduled for the fall.

“We scheduled some improvements to the fountain for this year before the vandalism ever occurred,” Klecker said, adding the project is slated to begin in late September. “The city received a grant from the Owatonna Foundation to do some restoration work on the fountain, and to do that the whole fountain will need to be drained and pieces removed as they get painted.”

Klecker said the $25,000 grant will be matched by another $10,000 from the city to do an all over restoration on the paint and mechanics of the fountain. The centerpiece of the Central Park fountain, which includes the two basins and the crane, was originally placed in 1893. The surrounding pool, including the two drinking fountains, was installed in 1909. The fountained was last restored in 1977.

Once the fountain is pieced back together following the restoration, Klecker said the city plans to install surveillance camera in the park as a way to deter future vandalism. Klecker said cameras will first be installed at Dartts Park, but he hopes to also get some set up in Central Park yet this year depending on available funding.