The St. Peter Fire Department wasn’t really sure what to expect as it sent a couple of Santas out for the first time Dec. 12, but with perhaps some magic from the North Pole on their side, the crew successfully spread some cheer throughout town. And in the process, they provided a nice boost for the local food shelf.
From 5-7 p.m. Dec. 12, the Fire Department sent out two trucks — one on the north side of town and one on the south side — each equipped with a Santa at the top, doing his best to produce some smiles this holiday season. Firefighters Ron Neary and Ed Johnson wore the suits.
“This was my first time,” Johnson said. “It was the first time the Fire Department did anything like this, and I knew one of my good friends used to play Santa Claus quite a bit, so I burrowed his outfit.”
For Johnson, it was all about creating something positive in a difficult time.
“Ron came up with the idea, and I thought it was a good plan,” Johnson said. “This year has been really goofy for kids, with birthday parties and Christmases all messed up, so I thought it sounded like a really neat idea.”
St. Peter Fire Chief Matt Ulman thought it was a great opportunity for his department to stay connected to the community.
“We wanted to show the community some support,” he said. “I think because everybody needed a little bit of cheer, and we can cover the whole town and get some food for the shelf and all of that. We’re looked at as leaders in the community, and we’re very public figures. It’s important people trust us.”
The event saw kids and adults lined up outside homes and along the streets, waiting to get a glimpse of their favorite bearded jolly man. And as a bonus, volunteers handed out candy to the excited kids, while collecting donations of food and money for the local shelf.
In all, the event raised 1,600 pounds for the St. Peter Area Food Shelf, in addition to $719.
“It was a big hit,” Johnson said. “The kids were happy and excited; I think even some of the parents were excited. It was something new, and it was something different than everyone talking about the virus and everything else going on. It was a nice change of pace.”
With the success of the 2020 showing, the department is already planning to do it again next year, pandemic or not.
A new three-year initiative is setting out to create a more sustainable food system in southern Minnesota.
The Local Food Producer Sustainability Project kicked off in November with the goal of removing barriers that food entrepreneurs face in the region, which in turn will provide communities with economic development and more connections to local food. The Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation is partnering with the Minnesota Farmers Market Association, Renewing the Countryside and Sustainable Farming Association on the project.
The organizations hope to impact hundreds of farmers, local food producers, farmers markets, stores that buy local food and people with limited access to local food in SMIF’s 20-county region, which includes Nicollet and Le Sueur counties.
Jan Joannides, the executive director and co-founder of Renewing the Countryside, said she’s excited about the collaboration and its potential for supporting rural entrepreneurs.
“A vibrant and sustainable food system is vital in maintaining a strong rural community,” she said in a statement.
Kathy Zeman, executive director of the Minnesota Farmers’ Market Association, said the project could “revolutionize farmers’ markets in Minnesota” because they’ll have knowledgeable people considering the operations of farmers markets from all aspects during the project.
At the end of it, they hope to have vendors at farmers markets who grow good, healthy food for the community and all people will have access to that food.
“We build communities,” she said.
The organizations are hiring two members of the AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America program to staff the project. James Harren, who graduated from Carleton College in 2019 with a degree in environmental studies, has been hired to focus on local foods and economic development.
An advisory committee of 10-15 people is also forming to lead the project in learning more about the local food system in the region.
Pandemic impacts local food systems
The idea for the project hatched from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Food producers’ contracts to provide food to schools and restaurants dried up, but planting had already started.
“COVID-19 certainly shined a harsh spotlight on how fragile our food system is,” said Zeman, who directly sells meat and eggs to people on her farm Simple Harvest Farm in Nerstrand.
Zeman received an email about New Mexico farmers markets with some interesting ideas to help local food producers during the pandemic and sent it to everyone she knew. One of the recipients was Pam Bishop, the vice president of economic development at SMIF.
SMIF has been involved in the food space for a decade, with a primary focus on small scale farmers and entrepreneurs. The organization has also expanded its partnerships in the last decade, Bishop said.
Bishop said they noticed during the pandemic that there have been greater challenges in starting and growing a business, including for farmers in southern Minnesota. They wanted to find ways to help business owners be successful post-pandemic by creating a “process to listen, learn and devise a plan to help entrepreneurs in a more intentional way,” she said. It was clear that they needed to build their capacity to identify the needs, thus turning to an AmeriCorps member to step in.
She said they hope the work can have an impact by building programs, resources and partnerships that fill the needs of farmers. They want more entrepreneurs and farmers, stronger companies, more profitability and more people buying local food, she said.
“At the end of the day, we want to help more farmers,” she said.
Understanding the landscape
A lot is known about commodity farming, but there’s little data available on food producers who sell their products directly to the consumer, Zeman said. They know there are 5,000 registered cottage food producers in Minnesota, but she believes there are more who aren’t registered.
Harren came to the position having already toured area farms, including Zeman, as part of his coursework at Carleton. He said he had an interest in sustainable farming in college and it has expanded to include supporting communities.
Harren will spend the next year interviewing food producers, hosting focus groups and doing surveys to find out where local food producers need more support. He’ll produce a report at the end of the project’s first year outlining needed improvements and where there are gaps that need to be filled, he said. The overall goal is to understand what needs to be done to support small farmers, cottage food producers and people who buy local food, he said.
The project is for people who are considering starting their own farms and for those who are already doing that work.
“It’s a recognition that local food in southeastern Minnesota could be a really important vehicle to provide a robust economy in the region,” Harren said.
Improving farmers markets
Farmers markets are one of avenues producers have to market and sell their products and there are more than 300 farmers markets in Minnesota. They provide an entry for producers to sell their products locally while providing access to local food to the community, including people who receive government benefits, Zeman said.
“But we don’t know how to help them be successful,” she said.
The AmeriCorps member focusing on farmers markets will examine how to help them become bigger and better, she said.
At the end of the three years, Zeman said they hope to have enough data and curriculum developed that they can provide training to local producers on topics such as profitability and finances.
Overall, they want to drive the discussion about local food in Minnesota, she said. They want local producers to earn a living wage, but they also want food to be affordable for everyone.
“We want the poorest of the poor to be able to buy eggs from their neighbor farmer,” she said.
While both the city of St. Peter and Nicollet County aimed to keep any 2021 property tax increase to a relative minimum, neither entity could prevent some type of rise.
At its Dec. 14 meeting, the St. Peter City Council approved a 3.16% ($102,230) increase to the city portion of the property tax levy for 2021. At its Dec. 15 meeting, the Nicollet County Board of Commissioners approved a 2.99% increase to the county portion of the property tax levy for 2021.
Both will result in increases to the individual tax bills for most residents in the city/county, although those increases could be small if there is no change to one’s property value. St. Peter Public Schools still needs to certify its levy at its Dec. 21 meeting.
The city of St. Peter was initially hoping to see a lower tax rate in 2021 than 2020. That would’ve meant a property with the same value in 2021 as 2020 would see its city property taxes go down slightly.
However, the city’s overall tax capacity for 2021 did not increase as much as initially projected in September. That means the tax dollars are less spread out, increasing the impact on individual property owners.
“The tax capacity went up, but not by as much as the estimate in September,” St. Peter Finance Director Sally Vogel said. “I’m assuming when the county went out and evaluated property values, they weren’t as high as the county was originally projecting.”
So the tax rate will increase from 51.58 to 51.66. The city projects that a $150,000 property with no change in value for 2021 will see a $1.01 increase to the city portion of its tax bill. If that property saw a 2.3% increase in value, its city taxes would go up $22.13.
For a $250,000 property with no change in value, city property taxes are projected to go up $1.88. If that property sees a 2.3% increase in value, the city property taxes would go up by $37.08.
The city’s tax capacity moved from $6.27 million in 2020 to $6.45 million in 2021. There has not been significant new development in St. Peter in 2020, specifically commercial development, so the primary source of any increase in citywide tax capacity would be an increase to property values.
Expenditures in the 2021 budget are projected to increase by about $113,000 in 2021, mostly due to salary and insurance costs. The city’s general fund will actually operate at an about $98,000 loss, covered by reserves, which is not a significant concern, according to Vogel and City Administrator Todd Prafke.
Vogel noted in September that the city’s reserve fund is projected to be sitting at $3.9 million, or 46.5% of the city’s total budget, at the end of 2020. At the end of 2021, that reserve fund will drop to $3.7 million, or 44.4% of the total budget. The city has a goal of having its reserve fund between 35% and 50% of the total budget, so it will still be in a healthy place, according to staff.
Councilor Keri Johnson noted that the Local Government Aid coming from the state of Minnesota might decrease in coming years, as the state deals with a deficit, stemming from COVID-19. Prafke, though, said it was best to address that issue as it comes.
“I feel confident in the reserves you have …” Prafke said. “If there are significant Local Government Aid changes, that’s something that should be brought back to the council.”
One major change to the 2021 budget is the falling off of the Community Center debt, which has now expired after 20 years. The normal $270,000 that has been used to pay off the center’s debt annually, will now be split up — $170,000 back to the Community Center for maintenance and improvements; $100,000 in the Parks and Recreation Fund.
Another decrease in expenses in 2021 is for elections, where staff anticipates spending $15,050 less in a non-general election year. There were two primaries and a general election in 2020.
Increases in costs for 2021 include street maintenance at about $31,310 higher than 2020, $22,500 for the Fire Department to get new gear and replacement equipment, and funding for a new school resource officer. The city is also spending for $591,000 in the equipment fund, higher than usual, in part because of the new restrooms being built at Community Spirit Park for $200,000; another $40,000 is being used for pickleball courts at Veterans Park.
One project that is not included in the 2021 budget is the new fire station. The city already spent $466,000 from reserves on land purchase and design fees for the new station in 2020, but with no schedule set for construction yet, nothing is budgeted there for 2021.
Nicollet County made no changes to the final levy compared to the preliminary levy set in September.
Driven primarily by salaries and insurance costs, the Board of Commissioners approved a 2.99% increase to the countywide tax levy for 2021, equal to about $690,000 spread across the tax base.
“As a county government, we are heavy in human capital because of all the services we provide,” County Administrator Ryan Krosch said, explaining why wages, employee insurance plans and other personnel items impact the budget so heavily.
Most Nicollet County residents aren’t likely to be cushioned by the county’s overall tax market either. Staff projects that overall taxable market value in the county will decrease in 2021, driven mainly by a 17% drop in the value of agricultural land.
“That’s the largest drop I’ve seen here,” Krosch said. “That causes a significant increase in our tax rate.”
The tax rate is projected to move from 55.63 in 2020 to 58.62 in 2021. And the share of county taxes that residential property owners will be responsible for in 2020 will increase from 51% to 55%.
A residential property that is valued at $150,000 in 2020 and has no change in value in 2021, would see an approximate $38 increase to county taxes. That same property, with a 5% rise in value in 2021, would see an $86 increase to county taxes.
Beyond the wage and insurance cost increases, the county is allocating additional dollars in 2021 in a few areas. Throughout all the departments, the county is hiring three new employees for 2021, which staff expressed to be absolute needs.
The commissioners were comfortable with those additions, feeling they were necessary.
“It seemed like the staff additions were minimal and necessary,” Commissioner Terry Morrow said in September. “The great bulk in this budget is for people. As we look at the great need for public services right now — safety, health, public works — I came away thinking everyone was conservative in their requests. They recognized that, not only does the county have expenses, but the folks in Nicollet County have challenges right now.”
To keep expenses in check, the county chose to eliminate all seal coating projects from the Public Works Department in 2021. Although it might put street maintenance behind, Krosch and Public Works Director Seth Greenwood felt the county is far enough ahead to go without for a year.
“We’re anticipating a reduction in funds from gas taxes, so we eliminated the expenses from seal coating for one year.” Krosch said. “We’ve kept up with seal coating and have converted a lot of roads to concrete over the years, so we’re comfortable with that.”
As the city plans to accelerate road repairs, Cleveland residents will be paying a higher tax bill this year.
On Monday, Dec. 7, the Cleveland City Council approved a levy totaling $339,000, increasing it by 4.35% over last year’s levy.
“I was pretty happy with it; our increase was less than 5% and that included our new road project we just did in front of the school,” said Cleveland Mayor Don McCabe of the final budget and levy.
Cleveland is currently paying off a 10-year general obligation bond for the Sixth Street extension, amounting to $12,400 per year from 2020 onward. The project extended Sixth Street from the intersection of Sixth and Columbia Street about 200 feet south and installed a storm sewer, water main and additional diagonal parking to allow Cleveland Public Schools to build a new parking lot.
One of the biggest increases to the Cleveland budget was transfers to the Public Works capital overlay fund, which pays for street repairs such as chip sealing and public works equipment. The Cleveland City Council contributed $45,000 to the fund this year,nearly $20,000 more than in 2020 and $40,000 more than in 2019 in a push expedite street repairs.
“We typically put some in there every year,” said McCabe. “That’s an item where you put some in each a year and since we have a little room we put a little bit extra in there. We have a lot of roads in town that need repaired just like any small town.”
Road repairs are expensive, said Cleveland City Administrator Dan Evans. The public official said that this fund allows the city save up the dollars necessary to avoid issuing bonds and could be used to drive repairs alongside potential Le Sueur County street projects in the future.
“For a new chip sealing you can be looking at a minimum $50,000 bill,” said Evans. “We don’t have a line item for $50,000, so that’s why we set up that transfer. So when we need that work done, hopefully in the next year, we can use that capital outlay fund to hopefully piggyback off of Le Sueur County when they have their crews come in to do the chip sealing. Hopefully we can subcontract with them to do some routes in town.”
Payroll increases were also included in the budget, ranging from 2.5-2.88% for 10 staff positions in public works, the city office, police force and municipal liquor store.
“I’m glad we were able to keep it under a 5% increase,” said Evans.