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Rachel’s Light: Transitional home for women, children officially opens doors

MERIDEN — It has been a long journey, but the new shelter for women and children in the immediate area has finally opened its doors.

On Monday, the house located just outside of Meriden next to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church started taking in referrals, conducting interviews, and running background checks. By next week, the executive director of the home known as Rachel’s Light is predicting all the available rooms and beds will be full.

“I woke up to 30 emails this morning,” Amanda Starks said on the second day of taking applications. “That just confirms how awful the need here really is.”

Homelessness is real and right here in the Steele County area, which is precisely why a group of concerned people in the community felt compelled to assure that women and children who found themselves homeless would have a temporary home following the closing of the Lily Sparrow House in 2017.

While the spirit of the Lily Sparrow House — largely its Christian theme — will still be present within Rachel’s Light, the new board had stated that there will be some key differences to make note of. The biggest difference is that Rachel’s Light is a 501©(3) non-profit organization, which allows the organization to fund raise. Starks stated that Rachel’s Light will also provide a more formal programming piece to assist families in connecting with community resources to establish long-term housing.

“The first 45 days someone is here we want to just help them get back on track with some of the small things, whether that’s medical care or childcare,” Starks said, noting that the official program at the home will be 90 days. “But we also want to just allow them to have a moment where they can take a deep breath and reset.”

During the second part of the program, Starks said that they will take action in helping the women find their “next steps” that will lead to stable housing, whether that be finding long-term employment or possibly going back to school.

“We just want to help them be in a different place,” she added. “There is such a stigma to homelessness, but it’s not always as simple as those stereotypes. A majority of the time people are working really hard but for one reason or another just can’t make it work to find safe, long-term housing.”

Starks, who has a background in psychology and business, stated that developing structure and routine into an individual’s life is the best way to help eliminate chaos.

The house, which has 12 beds and four rooms, will take in women and children who are experiencing any type of temporary homelessness. According to Starks, that can range from living in toxic situations, couch-surfing, and potentially domestic situations.

“We are not a shelter, however,” Starks asserted. “We can’t take in people who are fleeing or hiding from an abusive partner, but we will absolutely connect you with the right organization that can help.”

The children can be either gender and up to the age of 18 so long as they are still in school. Because of potential trauma triggers, Starks stated that there are no men allowed in the home unless it is a professional appointment that is properly set up through the appropriate channels and house staff.

“Unfortunately, we’re not an emergency shelter right now,” Starks added. “We have to conduct background checks for the safety of everyone, but maybe someday we will be able to continue to grow.”

In order to grow, Starks said that it will take the power and support of the entire community.

“I don’t think Owatonna knows how bad the homelessness is here,” Starks said, stating that more than 100 children in the Owatonna school district experience homelessness at some point throughout the school year. “It’s not that the community doesn’t care, it’s just a lack of knowledge, so we want to help make our community more aware of this need.”

Several fundraising and community events are scheduled in the upcoming months to help get the community involved in Rachel’s Light. On Saturday, Sept. 14, the organization will be hosting a “Big Rummage Sale” with proceeds benefiting the home. The sale will be at Associated Church in Owatonna from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Donation items will be accepted on Friday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Electronics over a year old, undergarments, and any pressed wood furniture cannot be accepted. Starks said that the sale will be all free-will donations.

There will be a house blessing for Rachel’s Light on Sunday, Sept. 29, from 3 a.m. to 5 p.m. with refreshments provided by St. Paul’s Lutheran Church of Meriden at 2781 SW 92nd Avenue in Waseca. On Nov. 3, the organization will be hosting an “Open Table” soup supper and silent auction in recognition of Homeless Awareness Month.

Those seeking an application can go to RachelsLight.com or contact Steele County. Applications can be sent to RachelsLight55060@gmail.com or to P.O. Box 118 in Owatonna. Updates for Rachel’s Light can be found on its Facebook page.


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Blooming Prairie set preliminary budget, tax levy for 2020

BLOOMING PRAIRIE — During its regular meeting on Monday night, the Blooming Prairie City Council unanimously approved the preliminary 2020 budget, as well as the preliminary 2020 tax levy.

The property tax levy reflects a $44,041 net increase, a 6% increase. While the operation levy is decreasing $7,491, the debt service levy is increasing $51,542.

City Administrator Andrew Langholz presented that the proposed budget does reflect a much-needed increase in Local Government Aid in the amount of $20,876, which helped offset the majority of the expenditure increases. Langholz stated that he also used $5,000 of the excess debt service funds to lower the debt service levy. The capital fund was also increased by $11,500.

Some of the highlighted expenditures that will be coming the city’s way include a change in the employee health benefits HRA plan, which Blooming Prairie has held for nearly two decades. The city will be switching to an HSA plan, which will essentially help cover expenses that fall under the deductible of a health insurance plan. Langholz explained that though this will be a big change for the city and its employees, it will have a relatively small impact on the budget if they change the plan yet this year.

One of the most noticeable changes to the expenditures in the city’s 2020 budget can be seen in wages, which has been increased to reflect the 2.5% cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) that the council had approved earlier this year. The police wages all increased to reflect the COLA increases and Langholz noted that there was a step increase of one officer who moved from part-time to full-time hours.

“I’ve also adjusted the amount for worker’s compensation,” Langholz said. “This numbers seems to be volatile each year.”

The operational budget again this year reflects a balanced budget with no surplus or deficit. The debt service budget does, however, reflect a deficit of $3,536 with the surplus coming from the EDA Fund and Capital Outlay Funds.

Langholz also noted that the 2016A Main Street Bond, the 2017A Street Reconstruction Bond, and the 2019A Street Reconstruction Bond issues reflect more almost a quarter of the levy increase need. He stated in the tax levy memo that “hopefully the community understands that the street reconstruction they ask for costs tax dollars to pay for.”

The Truth in Taxation meeting for the final levy, which is open to the public, is scheduled for Dec. 9 at 7 p.m. in the Blooming Prairie City Council Chambers.


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Lois Riess may have been texting from dead husband's phone, court documents show

MANTORVILLE, Minn. — Unsealed search warrants in the case of a Dodge County woman accused of killing her husband reveal that she may have been using his phone briefly to assuage worries from his friends.

Lois Riess, 57, was indicted in May by a Dodge County Grand Jury on charges of first-degree and second-degree murder. Riess’ husband, David Riess, was found shot to death in the couple’s Blooming Prairie home in March 2018.

She then led authorities on a four-week, nationwide manhunt that went through Fort Myers Beach, Fla. — where she is accused of a second murder — before ending with her arrest in South Padre Island, Texas.

In Florida, Riess is accused of killing Pamela Hutchinson in Fort Myers Beach in April 2018. Riess has been nicknamed “killer grandma” because she looks like any typical grandmother.

In a search warrant unsealed earlier this year, law enforcement indicate that at least for a short period before David Riess was found, Lois Riess was using his cellphone.

A friend of David’s had called law enforcement on March 24, 2018, asking for a welfare check as he had not seen David for approximately 16 days. The friend had received a text messages from David’s number on March 12 but said “they seemed different,” according to the warrant.

“The messages included punctuation, which is uncommon for David Riess,” the warrant read.

In another warrant, law enforcement said they found an Amazon tablet box but not the tablet. Investigators were trying to determine if Lois Riess was accessing David’s email with the tablet or other device. The phone belonging to David was located on the kitchen counter and it was connected to his email.

“Preliminary investigation shows that Lois may have been in possession of the cell phone before the cell phone was left at the residence/crime scene,” according to the search warrant.

When investigators with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension interviewed employees who worked for David Riess, they told investigators they suspected something suspicious as “David typically responds to messages and frequently is in contact with the employees,” according to the warrant.

“Employees also expressed concerns that Lois stated David was leaving for a fishing trip, was sick, and they shouldn’t bother him in the house,” the warrant stated.

Riess is being held in Lee County Jail, in Florida, without bond after being indicted on multiple charges, including first-degree murder with a firearm and grand theft. The Florida State Attorney’s Office has filed to seek the death penalty. She has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., reported earlier this month that a Florida judge expressed unease by the amount of time the case has taken.

“I can’t believe this is the fourth or fifth case management hearing on a case that’s over a year old,” Judge Robert Branning said. The case has gone over the planned time frame.

The News-Press reported that Riess’ defense attorney, Jay Brizel, said he understood the judge’s frustration, but defended their slow movement on the fact that they have to do their “due diligence” on a case that spans five states.

A pretrial hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Dec. 17.


By JOE AHLQUIST Rochester Post Bulletin 

Century’s Cole Elbing (29) is brought down by Mankato West’s Wyatt Block (6) and Zander Dittbenner (9) during a Big Southeast District football game Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, at Century High School in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)