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City set for lower tax rate, despite increased levy, in 2021

The city of St. Peter is hoping to limit any city property tax increases in 2021 to a minimum.

The City Council Sept. 14 approved a preliminary budget and tax levy for 2021, with the levy at a 3.16% increase (or $102,230) from 2020. Despite the levy increase, staff projects the tax rate would still go down from 51.58 to 51.53, which means, if a property retains the same value in 2021 as 2020, its city property taxes would go down slightly.

The reason the levy could go up, but the tax rate still down in 2021, is because the city’s 2021 tax capacity is expected to increase at a higher rate than the levy. This means the tax dollars are further spread out, lessening the impact on property owners who aren’t seeing changes in valuation.

The tax capacity increase can mostly be attributed to an expected increase in properties across the city, according to Vogel. There has not been significant new development in the city in 2020, specifically commercial development, so that would not be the source of the tax capacity increase.

So while the tax rate will be down for 2021, most individual property values will be higher, meaning an increase in city property taxes is likely for many in 2021, but it should be relatively small in most cases.

The preliminary levy has to be set by the city in September. It is finalized in December. The final levy can be lower, but not higher, than the preliminary.

At a 3.16% levy increase in 2021, a $150,000 property with no change in valuation would see its city taxes go down by 63 cents. For a $250,000 business that doesn’t change in value, taxes would go down $2.13.

However, most properties are likely to see some kind of increase in valuation for 2021, and with that, a slight increase in city property taxes. A $150,000 home that increases in value by 2.5% in 2021 would see a $20.43 increase in city property taxes. A $250,000 business that increases in value by 2.5% would see a $62.29 increase.

According to City Finance Director Sally Vogel, there is always some possibility for change between September and December, but the city doesn’t expect a significant drop in the projected 2021 levy before the end of the year.

“We want to come in with what we think the realistic budget is and set the preliminary levy at that level, so we don’t expect much change between now and December,” she told the council.

City property taxes are one of three in St. Peter. Property owners also pay school district and county taxes; the levies for those are still to be determined.

Budget details

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.

She noted 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’s still in a healthy place, according to staff.

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 in 2020 with the general election still to come.

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.

Local Government Aid (LGA) is projected to increase by $52,973 to a total of $3.23 million in 2021. With the state currently in a projected $4 billion shortfall, this amount could change. The government aid from the state continues to not keep up with rises in inflation and costs for cities.

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.


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Community members share stories, give feedback on Mankato/St. Peter area policing
  • Updated
Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES carson.hughes@apgsomn.com 

Mankato and St. Peter area community members shared their police-related experiences with members of Indivisible, the NAACP, ACLU, B.E.A.M. and Greater Mankato Diversity Council as part of a series on policing. (Carson Hughes/southernminn.com)

She was an honor roll student at Minnesota State University, Mankato and the daughter of a 13-year retired police officer, so LT never expected law enforcement to be knocking on her door at 4 a.m.

LT was one of seven speakers who shared stories anonymously with the Greater Mankato Diversity Council, NAACP Mankato, ACLU Mankato, B.E.A.M., YWCA Mankato and Indivisible St. Peter/Greater Mankato on Sept. 10. The meeting, which was the first of a four-part series examining policing in St. Peter and Greater Mankato, focused on community experiences with police.

Yurie Hong, of Indivisible, said local law enfrocement officials have been invited to attend and take part in the series; none were on the call during the first session, which was focused on community members and civic leaders. Hong noted law enforcement officials weren’t part of the planning of this particular event, but they were invited to take part.

“The goal of this series is to motivate, educate, and empower community members and civic leaders to improve policing in the area,” said Hong. “Over the course of the series, attendees will hear from community members, civic leaders, and experts, who will help us move our communities towards a safer, more inclusive, and more equitable standard of law enforcement. Participants will be encouraged to work with local government and public safety departments so that they may be more responsive to community need.”

LT’s story began on an evening two years ago when a blizzard piled up snow in her apartment building’s parking lot. On her way to yoga, LT said she and her friends helped a man push his car out of the snow. But while helping the man, LT said she lost her phone. She found it later that evening in the snow after searching from her balcony. By 9 p.m., LT said she found her phone, put it in a bowl of rice and went to bed.

LT said she woke up to the sound of three police officers knocking on her apartment door. Their first question was if someone had broken into her home after noticing the footprints in the snow on her balcony.

LT explained that she went to search for her phone and without skipping a beat one of the officers asked what she was doing in a stolen vehicle.

“The guy who I helped out of his spot was not there anymore,” said LT. “The spot he was parked in, a stolen vehicle pulled into later, so where my phone was in the snow was basically under where the new car was parked. So it looked like I walked to the stolen car and walked back to my apartment.”

LT said she told the officers that she had no reason to steal a car, but was met with disbelief. She invited the officers into her home to show them her phone and that she was telling the truth. The officers told her to get dressed and come with them, but LT said the officers never told her where. She asked to call her mom since she didn’t know where she was going. The officers told her no repeatedly and put her in handcuffs.

“When you’ve lived a certain way and you know who you are as a person, looking down and seeing handcuffs is traumatizing,” said LT. “So I just started screaming; it was an out of body experience. I can still hear myself screaming.”

The officers eventually allowed her to call her mom, but took her to get a warrant to swab for her DNA. When she told officers to call the person she helped out of the snow to verify her story, LT said the police did not follow through. She got support from MSU faculty, the Mankato NAACP, and her mom’s best friend who is a current police officer. They met with the Mankato police, she got her DNA back.

While the issue was resolved, the experience has stayed with her. LT said that she had developed PTSD from the encounter. In the weeks afterward, she couldn’t sleep, was afraid someone would knock on her door and would even retreat back to her apartment if she heard what sounded like a police officer.

“I don’t resent police officers, I’m not anti-cop, but I do recognize that experience is going to stay with me,” said LT. “But I’m glad I can now engage in these conversations with other people and not be so naive. I used to think if you just live life right they won’t mess with you, and that’s just not reality.”

Others who spoke at the event had complaints about how they were treated by police as well. Many had stories of coming under suspicion by local police without committing any crimes

A resident of Mankato, who went by Tee, said that when she and her friend were driving and a state trooper pulled them over asking if she had been drinking. Tee said she had a few drinks earlier in the day but believed she was sober enough to drive. The trooper had her run through a number of tests like counting from 100 and reciting the alphabet backwards before taking her breathalyzer. The officer said that she was over the legal limit, but did not let her see the number. When she asked to read the breathalyzer, Tee said the trooper yanked her on the arm hard enough to leave a mark after she did not allow him to search her.

More state troopers were called to the scene and one officer who Tee described as polite took her to the police station. She took another breathalyzer and this time Tee said she blew a .06.

“He was like you look very cooperative and fine with me,” said Tee. “He said, I’m not going to waste anymore of your time tonight, I’m taking you home.”

After the incident, she said she tried to file a complaint with the police department, but they had no knowledge or record of the incident.

Destiny Owens, founder of BEAM, said that incidents like these demonstrated inappropriate conduct from police officers because people who were being cooperative were still faced with aggression.

“The aggression was the kind of thing that rang out the most for me. Because when we think of incidents like Sandra Bland where you’re cooperating, you do what you’re supposed to. You go where you’re supposed to go and there’s still this level of aggression and you’re being cooperative, that’s a problem.”

“These are the things that will dismantle good relations between community and police,” she continued. “Because your encounter with one officer was good, right? You talked about your kids, it was protocol, he calibrated the machine the way he was supposed to for you, did the breathalyzer and things and said, ok you can go home. But then the counter-interaction you had with the first officer, it can mess up what the good officer had done because that is something that can be very traumatizing and it stays with you.”


Jeff Olson MASA Polaris Leadership Award

At the end of June, Jeff Olson rounded up his second stint as St. Peter Public Schools superintendent, this time on a one-year interim basis. He received the Minnesoata Association of School Administators Polaris award for his work in 2019-20 and throughout his educational career. (Herald file photo)


Dawn Gens processes beef cuts at George’s City Meats in Nicollet Tuesday. She’s uncertain about what deer hunting season will look like this year — and how much her business will be able to take on as a result. (Hannah Yang/MPR News)


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More COVID deaths reported in area

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to take its toll locally, as a number of area counties reported new deaths over the last week.

In Nicollet County, the 16th death was reported on Sept. 11. As of Sept. 16, the county had reported 484 total cases, including 16 deaths, 32 hospitalizations. There were at least three hospitalized cases as of the 14th. The county has not reported specific data on recoveries, but the large majority of the cases have recovered.

In Le Sueur County, the third pandemic-related death was reported Sept 9. As of Sept. 14, the county had reported 436 total cases, including three deaths, 25 hospitalizations, and 408 recovered. There were no hospitalized cases as of the 14th, according to Le Sueur County Public Health.

Le Sueur County’s case rate was 44.67 per 10,000 people during the window from Aug. 16-29. That was the second highest rate in the state, behind only Waseca County.

In nearby Waseca County, it’s been a difficult stretch.

For the two-week reporting period of Aug. 16-29, Waseca County’s rate climbed to 50.51 per 10,000 — the highest in the state. It was the only county in the state with a rate greater than 50.

The Minnesota Department of Health suggests that any county with a rate greater than 50 adopt a distance learning model for all students. Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton and New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva school districts started the year with distance learning for middle and high school students. Waseca Public Schools has a meeting scheduled for Thursday.

The county now has eight pandemic-related deaths after recording its first just one month ago.

As of Sept. 10, the Federal Corrections Institution in Waseca reported 64 cases of COVID-19 among inmates and four among staff members — an increase of 13 from the day before. The facility houses 614 female inmates and 490 inmates have been tested, according to the Bureau of Prisons website. The BOP reports 70 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, meaning the majority have been at the Waseca site.

Blue Earth and Sibley counties have also reported new pandemic-related deaths in recent weeks.

Schools

Because of the pandemic’s impact locally (and statewide/nationwide), schools have started out with a new look in the area. All of St. Peter, Le Sueur-Henderson, Tri-City United and Cleveland have started the year in some form of hybrid learning.

LS-H and TCU both made last minute changes, switching elementary grades from in-person learning to hybrid learning. That’s because, when original plans were made, Le Sueur County’s case rate was below 20 persons per 10,000, but after jumping up above 40, the districts were forced to change, moving all grades (except kindergarten at TCU) to hybrid learning.

The hybrid learning model each of the local districts are using has students separating into two groups. One group comes in Mondays and Wednesdays, while the others come in Tuesdays and Thurdays. Fridays are being handled in a few ways, including having each group come in every other week or having only students who have required in-person classes come in.

Students are also wearing masks and being separated at desks at least 6 feet apart when in school.

Statewide

Minnesota’s daily COVID-19 numbers have recently shown moderate case growth, relatively stable hospitalizations and mostly single-digit deaths. Officials, though, continue to warn that the level of ongoing community spread of the virus means more problems ahead.

Public health authorities have warned community spread, where the origin is not precisely known, is growing in Minnesota, driven by informal get-togethers, weddings, college student meetups and other social events where people aren’t wearing masks, socially distancing or taking other precautions.

“We just really continue to be concerned about the degree of virus that’s prevalent all over the state and the ease with which what’s been a pretty controlled situation could escalate further,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters Monday.

“We’re really walking on the edge of the cliff and we’re grateful that we haven’t fallen off, but we have not moved away from the edge of the cliff,” added Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, tapping an analogy she and Malcolm have used before.

“The potential for going over the edge is still there,” she said.

Here are Minnesota’s current COVID-19 statistics, as of Sept. 16: 1,933 deaths; 85,813 positive cases, 79,583 off isolation; 244 still hospitalized, 136 in ICU; 1,743,611 total tests with 1,252,392 people tested.

New cases had been growing significantly for weeks and topped more than 6,000 two weeks ago, raising concerns that new cases surfacing now will create more severe health problems later.

Officials, however, believe those numbers will grow again. Like their colleagues around the country, health authorities here are watching in the week ahead for any signs of a rise in infections tied to Labor Day weekend gatherings.

‘Third or fourth inning’ of the pandemic?

While the decline in the number of people hospitalized is welcome news, Minnesota officials continue to implore people to stay vigilant against the spread of the disease.

They expect cases to climb following the Labor Day holiday and have warned that Minnesota could face a one-two punch this fall and winter from COVID-19 and the typical flu season.

State health officials on Monday morning made it clear that Minnesota remains in the early stages of the pandemic. In baseball terms, they see Minnesota’s as less than half way through the game.

“We’re in the third or fourth inning” of COVID-19, Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told MPR News Monday morning.

She and Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, acknowledged that public perceptions of the pandemic have shifted since the spring with people losing patience with the curbs on daily life and the calls for vigilance.

Malcolm signaled it was unlikely the state would go back to the level of restrictions seen in March when public support for “dramatic actions” was widespread. The public now, she said, wants the state to take “more measured and precise actions.”

She added, though, that Gov. Tim Walz will “do what he feels is necessary to keep a handle on this pandemic.”

Wisconsin sees surge of cases

COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin have risen by two-thirds in the past two weeks, to the state’s highest-recorded levels.

On Sunday, Wisconsin reported more than 1,550 new confirmed cases, a new record for the state. It’s also more cases than Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota or South Dakota have ever reported in a single day. Nor is it an outlier — Wisconsin’s number of new cases has been rising for two weeks, while its number of new tests has remained flat.

Adjusted for population, Wisconsin is averaging more than 200 new cases per million residents, twice as high as Minnesota. Though a record for Wisconsin, Iowa and both Dakotas saw significantly higher rates in late August. Since late August, Iowa and South Dakota have seen their cases fall, while North Dakota continues to report high numbers of new cases per capita.


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Federal funding secured for Nicollet to New Ulm Hwy. 14 expansion

On Sept. 10, celebrations erupted for those living along or near the Hwy. 14 corridor as it was officially announced that federal funding had been secured for the last remaining two-lane stretch of the road from Nicollet to New Ulm, often considered the state’s deadliest. The funding will come from a $22 million grant from the United States Department of Transportation’s Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) program.

“I am extremely proud to announce that because of this federal grant and state provided funds, the long overdue completion of the Highway 14 project – more than 50 years in the making – will finally become a reality,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn (R-Blue Earth) during an impromptu press conference in New Ulm to announce the funding. “Hwy. 14’s completion will go a long way toward enhancing safety, expanding commerce and improving transportation efficiency and quality of life for the hardworking men and women of southern Minnesota.”

In May, the state Legislature passed a measure to allow the Minnesota Department of Transportation to apply for a $36 million federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan for Hwy. 14 administered through the Rural Project Initiative and Build America Bureau of the United States Department of Transportation. State Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, said in a statement that legislators are confident Minnesota will be approved for the TIFIA loan, which, between the BUILD grant and commitments from MnDOT and Nicollet County ($3.5 million), will fully fund the estimated $92.7 million project.

“The BUILD grant will reduce what the state of Minnesota must contribute, and that is a direct benefit to Minnesota taxpayers,” said Frentz. “The 12-mile stretch from Nicollet to New Ulm is shovel-ready and we could see the project finished by the end of 2022, which is a huge benefit for all southern Minnesota.”

“This was a win-win solution that I’m proud to be a part of,” he added.

The expansion of Hwy. 14 has been a personal topic for many in the region. In 2020 alone, there have been two fatal crashes on the 12-mile two-lane stretch. State Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, said Thursday that the federal grant is both welcome and much needed for his district which includes the dangerous stretch of road.

“For too long our community has been home to one of the deadliest highways in the state,” Brand said. “Today’s news is a victory for the tireless advocates and a testament to the determination of the folks at the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s District 7, who refused to let this opportunity pass us by.”

Among those advocates is Owatonna City Councilor Kevin Raney, who also serves as the current president of the Hwy. 14 Partnership. When funding was first secured for the expansion project from Owatonna to Dodge Center in 2018, Raney was quick to assert that his advocacy would not end until the highway is a continuous four-lane stretch from New Ulm to Rochester.

“The federal BUILD grant announced [Thursday] is fantastic news for southern Minnesota. This grant will help ensure that Hwy. 14 expansion between Nicollet to New Ulm can proceed as quickly as possible,” Raney said in a statement Thursday. “We have waited too long and lost too many neighbors on Hwy. 14 over the years, but the progress we’ve seen this year is a source of hope. Completion of this project will save lives and help our local economies emerge from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“The collaboration that has taken place across multiple levels of government to keep this project moving despite the COVID-19 pandemic is living proof that when we pull together, Minnesotans can tackle big problems,” he said.