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Members of the Owatonna football team rush onto the field prior to a game last season at the OHS football stadium. In a situation that evolved from a regularly-scheduled meeting late last week, the Minnesota State High School League reversed its original decision from early-August and approved for football and volleyball to return this fall following an emergency session on Monday morning. (Jon Weisbrod/southernminn.com)

OPD K-9 officer receives donated body armor

Keeping officers safe in the line of duty is a priority of the Owatonna Police Department, regardless of whether they have two legs or four.

Thanks to a nonprofit’s K-9 program, OPD K-9 Officer Vegas will be the recipient of a bullet- and stab-proof vest. According to a press release, Vegas will receive the vest as a charitable donation from the nonprofit organization Vested Interest in K9s, Inc.

Vegas is a 2-year-old German shepherd who has been a member of the OPD since August 2019, working alongside his handler Officer Casey Martin. Vegas came from Slovakia and is part of the original German shepherd heritage and has been certified by the National Police Canine Association. Vegas provides services in both patrol work and narcotics detection.

Vested Interest in K9s, Inc. is a nonprofit whose mission is to provide these vests and other assistance to dogs of law enforcement and related agencies throughout the nation, according to the press release. The potentially lifesaving body armor for four-legged K-9 is custom fitted for each recipient and since its inception since 2009, the organization has provided over 4,004 vests in all 50 states. The estimated value of the donations is $6.9 million, with each vest estimating roughly $1,700 to $2,300. Each vest comes with the five-year warranty.

In August, Martin told the Owatonna City Council that once Vegas reached 20 months-old that he would be fitted with a Kevlar vest that he would only wear for specific calls. He said because the vest is hot and heavy, it is not ideal for Vegas to wear at all times.

The vest Vegas will receive will weigh about 5 pounds.

The program is open to K-9 officers that are at least 20 months-old, actively employed and certified with law enforcement or related agencies. According to Vested Interest, there are an estimated 30,000 law enforcement K-9s throughout the nation.

It had been about two years since the OPD last had a K-9 unit prior to Vegas joining the department. During the time without a local K-9, the OPD frequently requested K-9 services from Rice County or the city of Faribault. According to Chief Keith Hiller, the department was able to fund the Vegas’ acquisition and training through various forfeitures.

Capt. Jeff Mundale said Vegas’ vest, which OPD expects to receive before the end of the year, will be embroidered with the sentiment “Honoring those who served and sacrificed.”

In July, the Steele County Sheriff’s Office was able to revitalize its K-9 program after nine months of aggressive community fundraising. Deputy Willow, a 2-year-old German shepherd, also from Slovakia, works along partner and handler Deputy Caleb Buck to provide tracking and narcotics services. Sheriff Lon Thiele said his office received approximately $31,000 in donations from individuals and business throughout the county to bring back the program. A forfeited vehicle was also outfitted as the new K-9 squad car.

Hungry for an education: Local college looks to fill the basic needs of college students

The beginning of the school year can be a nerve-racking time for any college student. Figuring out how to effectively study, learning how to make friends in a new environment and juggling assignment deadlines can all be a cause for stress, but some students face the additional obstacle of not knowing when and where they’ll be able to get their next meal.

Riverland Community College hopes its recent project will ease student hunger.

Local students can now focus more on their studies and worry less about keeping their stomachs full after Riverland’s Owatonna campus opened its own food pantry. The new pantry is the latest edition to Riverland’s offerings; pantries have already been set up on the Albert Lea and Austin campuses.

Food insecurity among college students has proven to be a real issue. Lacking reliable access to healthy food can lead to a negative impact on students’ academic performance, mental health and physical health.

Rates of basic needs insecurity — such as access to affordable food and housing — are higher for students attending two-year colleges compared to four-year colleges, according to College and University Basic Needs Insecurity: A National #RealCollege Survey Report. The survey (created by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice) reports results using information collected in fall 2018 from 123 two-and four-year colleges throughout the U.S.

Of the nearly 86,000 students who participated in the survey, 45% of the respondents were food insecure in the prior 30 days. The results also report that rates of insecurity are higher for marginalized students, such as African Americans, LGBTQ students and students independent from their parents or guardians for financial support.

Storage shelves were purchased using a $1,600 grant from the Minnesota Department of Health. (Photo courtesy of Kim Nelson)

Installation of the food pantry at the Owatonna location was made possible by a recent Steele County grant — Statewide Health Improvement Partnership (SHIP). Counties receive SHIP funding from the state to release subgrants to projects related to health.

“The Statewide Health Improvement Partnership (SHIP) supports community-driven solutions to expand opportunities for active living, healthy eating and commercial tobacco-free living,” according to the SHIP website.

The $1,600 grant was used to purchase storage shelving and a commercial grade energy efficient refrigerator to store perishable healthy foods. Due to COVID-19 pandemic the refrigerator is currently on backorder at the Owatonna campus.

The food pantry is open even as the college waits for the refrigerator to make its way to the Owatonna campus. (Photo courtesy of Kim Nelson)

Each pantry also has a resource area, where students can find information on other services available in the community to reinforce SHIP’s initiative. These resources include locations to get clothing, mental health resources, active living resources, contact information for the county’s Department of Human Services and WIC information for students with families, according to Kim Nelson, director of grants and alumni relations at Riverland Community College.

“Anything to keep them healthy,” Nelson said.

Nelson says she continues to work with SHIP coordinators on potential opportunities for funding and support, but Minnesota Department of Health’s SHIP initiative is reliant on funding from the state legislature. As a previous recipient of the grant, SHIP provides grantees with resources, such as potential partners and food donors to encourage the pantry’s sustainability.

“They’ve been an integral part of helping the health of communities in southern Minnesota, so I can’t say enough great things about that Statewide Health Improvement Partnership,” Nelson said.

Shelving units for the food pantry. (Photo courtesy of Kim Nelson)

Since each county has their own pool of funding Nelson had to apply three separate times for each of the college’s pantries. Nelson says the Owatonna campus grant application started in March led by a team of staff and student representatives from the Student Senate who had a clear vision of how they would approach the project. Riverland Community College was notified this summer about the funds and had to spend the monies by the end of August.

On Sept. 8 Riverland Community College celebrated the food pantry with a grand opening and welcomed students back to campus as they started classes. The pantry is open to all current Riverland students.

Ashley Rezachek / By ASHLEY REZACHEK ashley.rezachek@apgsomn.com 

A sign sits outside the Owatonna campus food pantry. (Ashley Rezachek/southernminn.com)

Marketing and Tourism Directors in Northfield, Faribault, and Owatonna have been working hard over the last three years to showcase the great tourism destinations that lay south on Interstate 35. Pictured, left to right, are Lisa Peterson (Northfield), Nort Johnson (Faribault), and Karen Pehrson (Owatonna). (Submitted photo)

Proposed levy hike should minimize Owatonna tax increase

A preliminary 2021 tax levy, approved last week by the Owatonna City Council, is expected to keep property tax increases to a minimum.

During its regular council meeting last week, the council adopted the proposed 2021 tax levy it believes is consistent with the city’s strategic plan. The 2021 proposed levy includes a 3% increase over 2020, which is well below the estimated 8% increase in the city’s tax base, determined by the Steele Assessor’s Office.

The total proposed levy includes the city levy of $13.76 million and $185,000 each for the Economic Development and the Housing and Redevelopment authorities. The proposed budget for 2021 was approved at $38.68 million. The levy can not be increased before final approval in December, though it can be decreased.

The city relies on property taxes for approximately 50% of the total general fund revenue, supporting such functions as general government, public safety, public works, and culture and recreation.

By keeping the levy increase beneath the tax base increase, which has been achieved the previous two years, the city has been able to keep property hikes to a minimum. Finance Director Rhonda Moen said they have always tried to align with the tax base growth, but this year the management team aggressively tackled the challenge of presenting a proposal well below the estimate increase.

“It wasn’t easy, but it was a challenge we were all tasked with,” Moen said. “It’s been a very challenging budget process, but we have great management here at the city.”

One of the clear challenges in forming the proposals this year was the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Moen said city officials had to consider the pandemic severed several revenue streams, emphasizing the importance of having a contingency plan in place.

“There’s no certainty on what things are going to be like after this next winter and going through a regular flu season, we have no idea if our programs will be up and running,” Moen said. “We may have to operate similar to this year, so the management team got together and really worked on reducing expenses to make up for that lost revenue. Our budget was prepared kind of business as usual, but with some contingencies in place.”

Moving forward, the council will have an opportunity to hear from its department heads to talk about their individual budgets. Moen said three department heads have met with the council thus far, and the rest are scheduled to do so throughout October.

Moen said the city will also keep a close eye on state aid and how that might be impacted by the pandemic and a whopping state budget deficit. Proposed projects scheduled for 2020 have been held off to provide a “cushion,” according to Moen, and how the state distributes LGA could have a large impact on the 2022 levy and budget.

“We have been watching [the state’s] revenue estimates as they come out, and their last estimate was quite a bit higher than they had been anticipating,” Moen said. “When the state has those difficulties, it filters down to the cities.”

The final 2021 levy and budget will be presented to the public at 6 p.m. Dec. 1 in the council chambers. Residents are encouraged to provide input to the council on the budget at that time.