Local governments have plenty to think about beyond an ongoing pandemic in 2021, with street and public work projects, sustainability and diversity initiatives, and broadband programs all at the top of priority lists.
Local cities St. Peter and Cleveland have felt less tangible impact from COVID-19 over the last year, and can continue to focus on their usual business. Nicollet County, meanwhile, has had more of its resources drained in response to the pandemic, and it will continue to deal with that reality as it also tries to move ahead on its own projects.
As the hub of public health and human services for the area, Nicollet County was the primary entity tasked with responding to the pandemic locally. It has seen both time and money drained away from other areas, in order to properly respond to the present circumstances.
“Nicollet County was on the front lines of responding to the pandemic by providing public health and safety services and economic recovery in 2020 and will continue this effort in 2021,” County Administrator Ryan Krosch said. “Nicollet County Health and Human Services will continue to provide contact tracing and COVID testing and will be instrumental in the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. On the economic recovery side, Nicollet County will be receiving $660,000 from the state of Minnesota in early 2021 to establish a grant program for small businesses struggling from the impacts of the pandemic. These funds are in addition to the $4.1 million of federal funds the county received for health, safety and economic response in 2020 and the additional federal funding we may receive later in 2021.”
As the county continues to focus work on pandemic-related projects, it also must grapple with the impacts of COVID-19 on its regular business. All local governmental entities might be negatively impacted by a projected $1.27 billion statewide deficit in the next budget cycle. The county, which receives millions of dollars in state funding annually, is specifically prone.
“A lot of time could be spent in 2021 on planning for the 2022 budget,” Krosch said. “Counties receive a lot of funding from the state. Historically, when the state experiences budget deficits, county funding is often reduced. The ongoing economic impact of the pandemic in early 2021 and the resulting actions of the Legislature could have an impact on revenue we receive from the state of Minnesota for 2022.”
He continued, “In the 2021 budget, projects were delayed because of the pandemic. Remodeling projects scheduled for county facilities have been delayed. Road seal coating was also eliminated from the 2021 budget to offset the loss of state aid for road maintenance we will receive in 2021. State aid is paid for from gas tax. Less driving occurring in 2020, due to the pandemic, means less gas tax was generated to pay for road maintenance in 2021.”
While much of the hopeful work for 2021 had to be pushed off, Nicollet County Public Works will still have plenty to do this year. It starts with road projects.
County Road 12 will be reconstructed north of Courtland. A section of this road was under water for two years, Krosch noted. Mathiowetz Construction started work in August 2020 on the $6 million project. It involves an 8-foot grade raise of the flooded section of road, shoulder widening, creating flatter ditch inslopes and backslopes, bituminous surfacing and the installation of intersection lighting.
At County Road 14, just north of the Minnesota River near New Ulm, flooding rains and snow melt in 2019 followed by heavy rains again in 2020 caused two major slope failures (landslides), as the road goes up the river bluff. Work started in September 2020 to repair these slopes and should be completed in the spring of 2021.
A pavement rehabilitation project is also planned for 5.3 miles of County Road 13. The project will involve milling off a portion of the existing surface, placing a concrete overlay on the driving lanes and overlaying the shoulders with bituminous.
Nicollet County is also involved in the funding for the four-lane expansion of Hwy. 14 from Nicollet to New Ulm. MnDOT is currently developing plans to finish the four-lane construction in 2022. Since Nicollet County has roads that intersect with 14, Krosch said, the county needs to provide its share of cost participation for the project. Nicollet County’s share of the expansion is $3.5 million that will be paid to the state of Minnesota in late 2021.
Besides working on road projects, Public Works will also bring in a consultant in 2021 to complete a space and facility study for the department’s operations. Krosch said some of the Public Works facilities are aging, have poor ventilation and are not large enough to adequately store and maintain modern road maintenance equipment. Public Works also needs additional space to stockpile materials used for road and bridge projects. Nicollet County currently has Public Works facilities in St. Peter, Nicollet, Klossner and Lafayette.
Another major focus area for the county in 2021 will be broadband. In 2020, Blandin Foundation provided a grant to complete a countywide broadband internet feasibility study. Work on the study was completed in the fall of 2020. The purpose of the study, Krosch said, was to gather information about broadband internet service in the county and determine the market demand, technology alternatives, and costs.
Where gaps were identified, the hope is the study will help facilitate more grants and private sector investment to improve broadband service in the county. Currently 82% of Nicollet County households are served with wired broadband service. However, most of the wired broadband is located in St. Peter and North Mankato, while the remainder of the county is considered unserved with limited wired broadband.
In 2021, Nicollet County plans to administer a survey of county residents to help quantify broadband market demand. The county also plans to reach out to internet service providers and provide them with the information found in the study in an effort to encourage them to invest more broadband infrastructure.
When the city of St. Peter adds up its pandemic-related costs in 2020, it doesn’t even reach six digits. Most of the response falls on the county, while cities were mostly only responsible for the distribution of some personal protective equipment and ensuring staff were properly protected while working.
However, the city did receive over $900,000 in federal funds from the CARES Act, which it spent on 0% interest loans for local small businesses, which eventually converted to grants. After a second shutdown in the late fall and early winter, the city instituted a second loan program for small businesses, plus a loan/grant program for businesses in the hospitality industry. These new loans and grants are not paid for with CARES dollars (which had to be spent by Nov. 15), and are instead coming out of the Economic Development Authority’s revolving loan fund.
Regarding pandemic-related projects and initiatives going forward, City Administrator Todd Prafke said the story is yet to be told.
“We don’t know yet, so part of our effort is to be ready to assist,” Prafke said. “We’ll be watching and listening to what businesses tell us. We’ll be listening to see if we need to inject more economic development dollars as well. I suspect we’ll be a player in assisting Nicollet County Public Health in help making those vaccinations happen.”
According to Prafke, the city has been able to stay on course with its normal business during the pandemic and that should continue in 2021.
“I don’t really think it’s impacting our ability to get our normal projects done,” he said. “I think there are times we are challenged a bit, but it’s not interfering with the other stuff.”
The city administrator rattled off a number of projects and initiatives of focus for the city in 2021. The first one is the ongoing process to construct a new fire station in town. The city has already purchased land for the new station at the corner of Broadway Avenue and Sunrise Drive and Five Bugles Design has produced a concept design for a potential new facility.
But the City Council has always intended on establishing a new sales tax in the community to help pay for the building, rather than putting it all on residents’ property taxes. The Legislature did not even vote on a bill in the 2020 session that included approval for the city to establish a sales tax. Rather than moving forward with the project this year (and possibly securing a sales tax later), the council chose to wait one more legislative session (this spring), and see if the city can get approval. If that happens, the community will still have to vote at a referendum on whether to implement the sales tax.
A couple of road projects along North Third Street are also set for 2021 work. From Broadway Avenue up to Hy-Vee, the road is set for reconstruction in 2021, utilizing the city’s regular process. Things are more complicated for the North Third Street project north of St. Julien Street, because that is an undeveloped area within city limits, meaning it requires more than just a road reconstruct. The City Council Jan. 11 approved the city going out for bids for that part of the project and will wait for responses.
City Administrator Prafke also noted sustainability as an area of focus for the city in 2021. Ongoing efforts, like Green Steps, solar initiatives and electric car chargers will continue to be worked on. The city will also need to keep up with state and federal regulations related to stormwater ponds across the community.
Another more general effort from the city is continued work on equity-diversity-inclusion issues. That involves staff training and community participation and discussions. The city was an early adopted of cultural literacy training about a decade ago, and it will be moving forward with additional training activities, Prafke said. The city will also likely be holding forums on accessibility services in 2021.
In the area of parks and recreation, the city will be working on getting its public locations back to normal, “whatever that might mean,” Prafke said. Depending on developments to the pandemic, the city may again be utilizing its parks for events and gatherings by the end of the year. The city is also working in tandem with the St. Peter School District to update facilities at Community Spirit Park.
The last two areas Prafke said were interconnected: business and housing support. The city will continue to seek ways to assist its businesses in difficult times, while also focusing on a number of housing needs. Prake said it’s not just “workforce housing,” but housing across the spectrum that St. Peter needs. Projects at Traverse Green and Windsor Pond should add new workforce and upper level homes respectively, but that’s not enough to meet the city’s needs, the administrator noted.
In Cleveland, the City Council is just beginning a project to switch out the city water meters for a radio read water meter system. City Administrator Dan Evans said that many of the city’s current water meters have aged to the point that Cleveland is not getting accurate readings.
A new system has the potential to reduce meter errors and raise city revenues, said Evans. The project is in its infancy, so nothing has been finalized and no bid s have been accepted, but Evans estimated the project would cost $80,000 to replace 300 water meters.
The beginning of the calendar year marks the middle of the school year, but that doesn’t mean St. Peter Public Schools and Cleveland Public School aren’t ready for a fresh start.
After a 2020 with mostly distance and/or hybrid learning, the district is hoping to get students back into the classrooms, starting with the youngest learners. Whether they stay in class will depend on the pandemic, but either way, leadership is ready to intervene in 2021 for any students who might be struggling with changes to learning.
Beyond dealing with unprecedented circumstances, local school districts are also hoping to work on some of their goal and priority areas in 2021, including equity in learning, career and technical education, and for Cleveland, opening brand new facilities.
St. Peter Public Schools is inching students back into the classroom, with the hopes of keeping them there going forward.
A new learning model plan, approved by the St. Peter School Board at its Dec. 21 meeting, calls for early learners to return to full in-person learning first (Jan. 11), followed by elementary students (Jan. 19), and then, depending on county rates, middle and high school students (potentially February). The plan came off the back of new guidance from the state of Minnesota, which emphasizes getting the youngest students back into schools.
Practices and rehearsals at St. Peter Public Schools began even earlier on Jan. 4 after the Minnesota Department of Health gave schools the OK to resume activities. The first games of the season are set to begin Thursday, Jan. 14.
While the district is excited to see students coming back into schools, leadership is making the change incrementally, knowing the pandemic situation can change at the drop of a hat. With all of the distance learning in 2020, teachers and administration have been keeping an eye on how students are handling the changes and are ready to intervene in 2021.
“Many of our students have continued to excel in the hybrid and distance learning models, but we recognize that some of our students have not been as successful,” Superintendent Bill Gronseth said. “We continue to monitor student progress, and as they come back to in-person learning, we’ll be further assessing their progress. We are planning the implementation of interventions to provide additional support for students. We will be planning for additional opportunities in the summer for students to make up lost credits, provide further interventions for students in specific areas, and to prepare them for the 2021-22 school year.”
Gronseth noted, too, that the time in distance and hybrid learning is likely to impact schools into the future.
“The need for online learning has driven our staff and students to learn new technology and communication skills,” he said. “We have exciting ways to engage students in a new level of learning. While we don’t want to be totally dependent on distance learning as we have been, a blended approach may be in the future. It is difficult to predict how these new skills might change the future, but they will undoubtedly change education forever.”
Gronseth said that the more immediate impact of the pandemic in 2021 includes the work staff has to put in to ensure safe and efficient operation of the buildings, so students have an appropriate learning environment. Financially, the district is also awaiting more federal and state dollars to help meet the needs created by COVID-19 in this unique school year.
Outside of COVID-19, the district has plenty of goals for 2021. The first one Gronseth noted is equitable education for an increasingly diverse district.
“Ensuring that our school district provides an equitable education to all students is a priority,” he said. “We have already taken several steps to improve our cultural responsiveness and added staff to support our students and families. In 2021, we are continuing our focus on furthering education equity. At the heart of this work is the opening of the Office of Education Equity. We are inviting representatives from the community to serve on an Education Equity Advisory Council, and creating a Cultural Center which will be located at the high school but will serve the whole district. Together, we will increase the cultural responsiveness of our instruction, curriculum, policies, and procedures. We will focus on creating equitable opportunities for all of our students and their families.”
The school district will also hone in Career and Technical Education in 2021.
“We are working to expand the opportunities our students have to engage in meaningful, hands-on learning,” Grpnseth said. “A growing number of students are engaging in classes in Health Science, Agri-Science, Agricultural Business, Engineering, Construction Tech, Culinary, and other Career and Technology focused courses. These are meaningful opportunities for students to explore career options, learn applicable skills, and prepare for post-secondary education and career options.”
Gronseth explained these priorities are based in what students, teachers, administration and community members have highlighted.
“During the 2020-21 school year, leading up to a superintendent search process, students, staff, and community members came together to develop a profile of the school district,” he said. “It included areas of celebration, challenges, and future focus areas. Increasing education equity and the celebration of diversity was high on the list of every group that gathered. The continuation of successful programs, including Career and Technology, and curricular adoptions were also included.”
This year, Cleveland isn’t just opening up the school for hybrid learning, the district is also opening up new facilities.
Beginning on Thursday, Jan. 14, Cleveland Public Schools is planning to move grades Pre-K-3 back into in-person learning after two days of prep time for teachers on Monday and Tuesday. Grades 4-6 will be back at school on Monday, Jan. 18 and finally Grades 7-12 will enter the building on Monday Jan. 25.
Our goal is to get everybody back in-person and monitor things,” said Cleveland Superintendent Brian Phillips. “We’re hopeful that our numbers are low enough and we won’t be having to switch between in-person and hybrid learning. They need to be back and we’re comfortable at this point with what we’ve planned.”
Same as the other local districts, Cleveland resumed sports and activities Jan. 4 with the first competitions starting Jan. 14.
The Cleveland School District is also opening new facilities in the new year including new fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms, a STEM lab, biology lab, AgTech lab, teacher training lab, gym and weight room, locker rooms, cafeteria and kitchen and a larger band room.
These facilities were recently constructed and paid for with the passage of a $14.4 million referendum in 2018. New programming options including the makerspace, where students can explore problem-solving through play, and the expansion of robotics and addition of digital electronics classes.
However, the facilities will only be partially available to students at the start of the year since there is still work left to be done on the building.
“It is our hope that we’ll still get into it this school year and we’ve been assured that that will happen,” said Phillips. “But you know when they round construction you have to go through a punch list, and the punch list can take X amount of time depending on what you find and corrections that need to be made.”
Some of the areas that will be immediately available include the first floor, fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms, the STEM Lab, art room, biology lab and new offices for the athletic director and counselor. These spaces have been prioritized to free up space in the rest of the building.
One thing that may not be on the agenda this year was a proposed increase to the district’s operating levy. In November, the district sought the approval of a levy increase that would have collected $100,000 in additional revenue. The School Board pursued the referendum to cover additional staffing costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was rejected by 62% of Cleveland district voters.
But with the potential for a new federal relief package on the horizon, Philips indicated that an operational levy increase may not be necessary.
“We were short $100,000 so if there’s another round to meet those expenses it probably won’t be necessary to go back to the voters and ask them for more money,” said Philips. “We just may look at a renewal of what we currently have or even a reduction if CARES funding is to a point. We’re not trying to make money off of this, we’re just trying to meet our needs.”
Though the balance of power in Minnesota Legislature remains divided between a Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate, the 2020 elections sent several new faces to the Capitol, including two freshmen lawmakers from Le Sueur and St. Peter. Sworn in for their first session on Jan. 5, District 20A Rep. Brian Pfarr, R-Le Sueur, and District 19A Rep. Susan Akland, R-St. Peter, are learning the ropes and setting their agendas for the new year.
For Akland, who attended a Storm the Capitol rally in her first week, which ran parallel to the Trump supporter break-in at the nation’s capitol, lessons have been learned quickly.
Akland, a retired registered nurse from St. Peter, said that her priority entering office was to find ways to reduce the costs of healthcare. The representive received requested positions on the Health Finance and Policy Committee as well as Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
“One of the big issues I’ve heard several times is the high cost of our insurance, our premiums and deductibles and the surprises that come with that sometimes,” said Akland. “I want to look at the whole of how people are paying out of pocket and how we can make it affordable and how we at the same time we can provide the high quality of care that we experience right now.”
Akland did not provide specifics on how she wanted to lower health care costs, saying that she would be listening to her constituents and to experts in the insurance field.
The St. Peter legislator was one of a few House Representatives to flip their seats in the last election, unseating incumbent Democratic Rep. Jeff Brand. Akland campaigned on resolving partisan divisions, but she was on the receiving end of criticism last week after her attendance at a rally in St. Paul protesting the certification of the election of President-elect Joe Biden.
The rally on Wednesday, Jan. 6 was billed as a “Storm the Capitol” rally where hundreds of supporters of President Donald Trump gathered at the steps of the Minnesota State Capitol to challenge the election. The rally was peaceful and there were no reported attempts to breach the Minnesota Capitol.
Akland was one of several state Republican lawmakers to speak at the event and became further embroiled in controversy after the Star Tribune reported that she told the crowd she was happy to see them unmasked.
Akland said that she regretted the response to her presence of the rally and that her words were taken out of context. The lawmaker said she was in support of mask-wearing and that her remarks were intended to be a comment on how she was happy to see people smiling.
“As a nurse, I’ve worn masks for many years,” said Akland. “They do help stop the spread of certain diseases, no doubt. So in the pandemic, it is absolutely necessary that we be cautious to protect ourselves and others. So when people say I’m ‘anti-mask,’ I’m not.”
The lawmaker also condemned the violence at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, when supporters of the president broke through police barricades and forced legislators to evacuate.
“I want to take steps to heal the divisiveness in our country,” said Akland. “Our actions matter and our words matter. I regret that my attendance at this event is viewed as furthering division. That was not my intent and it’s not the leader I plan to be for this district.”
When asked if she supported the protest against the election certification, Akland commented that it was a federal issue and that now that certification is complete “it’s time to move on.”
Questions of Akland at the rally may continue, though, as House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, indicated the House would launch an investigation into the actions of the representatives who attended the Minnesota rally.
“We have a situation where we have members of the Minnesota House of Representatives who gathered at a gathering called ‘Storm the Capitol’ while the United States Capitol was under assault,” Hortman said. “So, you can bet we will fully investigate and find out exactly what was said and done and whether any of that was worthy of prosecution.”
Six Republican House members were at that St. Paul rally, according to House Democrats: Reps. Akland, Steve Drazkowski, Mary Franson, Glenn Gruenhagen, Eric Lucero and Jeremy Munson.
Freshman lawmakers aren’t the only ones facing a learning curve in the 2021 House session. In reaction to the continued spread of COVID-19 and the resulting death of Sen. Jerry Relph last month, the House has limited in-person contact in the chambers, utilizing virtual meetings and shifting to a fingerprint activated voting system that allowing representatives to vote from their own offices.
“Training as a new legislator was different because everything is online via Zoom so it’s a new experience obviously,” said Pfarr. “I’m learning everyday the process but its new for the seniors who have been here for a while because of the way we’re conducting business.”
The Le Sueur native is entering office off the back of a career as the president of Le Sueur First Farmers and Merchants Bank and a National Guard Colonel and succeeding retired Rep. Bob Vogel (R-Elko New Market). Pfarr said that he wants to use his experience in banking to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, who was lauded by colleagues as a “master of numbers.”
“My predecessor Bob Vogel was noted for being the numbers guy and digging into the true cost of the bill and making sure that the numbers worked out and we weren’t overspending,” said Pfarr. “With my experience in finance I think I can be that person that helps there as well.”
The new legislator has been assigned to the Housing, Commerce and Judiciary Committees and said that he is developing his priorities by listening to his constituents. Pfarr signaled that his top priority will be the reducing the state’s projected long-term deficit.
The state of Minnesota is currently forecasted to have a $641 million surplus in June, but a $1.27 billion deficit for the next two-year budget according to the Department of Minnesota Management and Budget. Pfarr said he aims to cut the projected deficit without raising taxes.
“Every one of my constituents has to live within their means and I can’t pain them with the fact that the government has to do the same,” said Pfarr. “I think it’s very doable from what I’ve seen and not further burden the taxpayer and provide the services we’re providing.”
The new legislative session has been a transitional period not just for new lawmakers but some experienced ones as well
“Training as a new legislator was different, because everything is online, via Zoom, so it’s a new experience obviously,” Pfarr said. “I’m learning every day the process, but its new for the seniors who have been here for a while, because of the way we’re conducting business.”
The legislator said that he didn’t have any specifics on what he would cut at this point.
“I’m certainly a fan of looking at each individual area on its merits and what it provides for the citizens of Minnesota,” said Pfarr.