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Waseca junior Haylee Sommers (9) and senior Jadyn Olsem (10) were both named to the All-Conference team as apart of the East Division. (Stephen McDaniel/southernminn.com)

Charity event raises record-shattering $68,000 for Waseca schools
  • Updated

When its children’s education is on the line, Waseca puts its money where its mouth is.

Waseca’s 10th annual Bluejay Blast, a Waseca Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) fundraiser for Waseca Public Schools, raised $68,000 on Saturday. This is the most the event has ever raised, shattering the previous record of $52,000 raised in 2019.

Julian Hast / By JULIAN HAST julian.hast@apgsomn.com 

Bluejay Blast raised $68,000 for Waseca schools on Saturday, the most it has ever raised, according to Amy Potter, left, chair of the Bluejay Blast committee. (Julian Hast/southernminn.com)

“I’m blown away,” said Amy Potter, chair of the Bluejay Blast committee, about the amount raised. “It showed us the community was ready to come out and have fun, all while supporting the schools.”

Potter went on to say the strong showing was even more special given the difficult past two years educators have had to endure.

The fundraiser comes after a year in which the event was canceled due to COVID-19 and only about $3,000 were raised. With a silent and live auction, catered food, entertainment and live music, organizers of the event managed to squeeze two years of fun into a single special day.

Julian Hast / By JULIAN HAST julian.hast@apgsomn.com 

Muriah Miller and Mark Denn of Miller Denn, a Waseca-based acoustic duo, performed live during the evening portion of Bluejay Blast before the live auction began. (Julian Hast/southernminn.com)

“If you’re considering bidding more, just remember, it’s all for the kids,” Potter said before the live auction took place.

With a silent auction, bingo and other family-friendly activities, the first part of the day’s events took place in the morning at Waseca Intermediate School.

Julian Hast / By JULIAN HAST julian.hast@apgsomn.com 

Bluejay Blast auctioned off a number of items, ranging from items like mittens and hats for which hundreds of dollars were bid at the live auction to private plane rides and vacations for which thousands were bid. (Julian Hast/southernminn.com)

The adults-only evening portion took place at the Starfire Event Center, with a social hour followed by a live auction. Auction items included humble hats and mittens for which hundreds of dollars were bid, as well as more extravagant items, including a two-hour private plane ride over Waseca and a seven-day trip to a private home on the beach in Belize, for which $6,000 was bid, the most ever bid on an auction item at Bluejay Blast.

Julian Hast / By JULIAN HAST julian.hast@apgsomn.com 

Six thousand dollars were bid on a seven-day trip to Belize at the Bluejay Blast school fundraiser on Saturday. (Julian Hast/southernminn.com)

Some auction items even had additional surprise items inside them, such as purses from Pippi Lane Boutique, Bernie and Ann Gaytko, and Speckled Hen, which contained, respectively, a bouquet of flowers delivered monthly for six months by Zinnias Boutique, a $100 gift card to Exclusively Diamonds and a three-piece jewelry set from the Peter James Collection.

Julian Hast / By PHILIP WEYHE philip.weyhe@apgsomn.com 

Purses with surprise gifts inside were bid on during the live auction portion of Bluejay Blast on Saturday. Winners of the purses are shown above. (Philip Weyhe/southernminn.com)

Other interesting items included a kayak, a fishing pole, a pound of butter and a cow skin rug, for which $1,850 was bid by Ashley Semmann after a drawn-out bidding war in which dozens of bids were made.

“I’m pumped about it,” Semmann said after winning the rug. “It’s super pretty.”

Julian Hast / By ANNIE GRANLUND annie.granlund@apgsomn.com 

Ashley Semmann won a cow skin rug after bidding $1,850 at Bluejay Blast’s live auction. (Annie Granlund/southernminn.com)

In previous years, funds raised from Bluejay Blast have been used for field trips, murals in the high school, updating equipment in science labs and more. Funds are allocated to teachers through a grant review process and used for things that the regular school budget often doesn’t cover.

Waseca pitches water tower project to Senate Capital Investment Committee
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All things considered, getting a new water tower into Waseca could cost the city up to $9 million. City taxpayers won’t pay anywhere near that — but the state government might.

Members of the Minnesota Senate Capital Investment Committee toured sites of proposed investment across southern Minnesota on Nov. 16, the city of Waseca being one of the locations. City Manager Lee Mattson presented the necessity of the 1-million-gallon water tower project as well as securing state and federal funding it to committee members at Waseca City Hall that morning. This took place nearly a month after Mattson delivered the same presentation to the Minnesota House Bonding Committee.

Julian Hast / By JULIAN HAST julian.hast@apgsomn.com 

Minnesota Sen. John Jasinski (R-Faribault) spoke to the Minnesota Senate Capital Investment Committee after Waseca City Manager Lee Mattson’s presentation on a water tower project. (Julian Hast/southernminn.com)

Mattson was requesting $4.8 million in 2022 state bonding funds to complete property acquisition, design and construction of the water tower. Associated costs with the water main, sewer main, lift station and more bring that number closer to $9 million. The gap between those figures would hopefully be covered by the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA), Mattson said, from which the city will be requesting $5 million for the project, though he noted the federal EDA requires a 20% local match on grants. This means a $5 million grant would require a hefty $1 million cost to taxpayers.

Fortunately, local matches for state bonding funds are more flexible than those tied to federal EDA grants.

“We will get some kind of a local match, but if we need to match $1 million to state and $1 million to federal, we can’t do it,” Mattson told committee members.

In attendance at the meeting were local state senators John Jasinski (R-Faribault) and Julie Rosen (R-Fairmont), county commissioners Blair Nelson and Mike Harguth, County Administrator Michael Johnson and Mayor Roy Srp.

The case for state funds

Mattson began his presentation by explaining why the water tower was needed. Those reasons included the necessity of the water tower for the city’s existing industrial space and future industrial developments, especially the Highway 14 west interchange. With many parcels of land around the city either owned by the Southern Research and Outreach Center or being used as spray fields to help with Conagra’s treatment operations, Mattson said developing new industrial land was key to attracting new businesses to the city.

What’s prompting the water tower project now, though, is the increased water flow needed for the continued operations of consumer packaged goods company Conagra, whose new Birds Eye vegetable processing facility in Waseca will be operational by the spring. It will staff 119 full-time employees and 250 seasonal workers, said Mattson.

Birds Eye’s new vegetable plant, south of the former Quad Graphics building, should be operational by the spring. Conagra would like improved water flow for the new facility. (File photo/southernminn.com)

Mattson went on to explain how the city’s financial resources are already “heavily engaged,” with recent projects requiring substantial funds from the tax base. These include the full reconstruction of Elm Avenue all through Waseca, annual street, sewer and water reconstructions, and trunk main improvements, as well as other substantial investments into wastewater treatment plant and stormwater permits.

These projects are already not easy for Waseca residents to fund, with the median household income in the city at 63% of the state median. Plus, with many expensive investments already made by the city in an effort to get Conagra to stay in the community, including a 20-year tax incentive and other significant investments in infrastructure that won’t bear financial fruit for many years, the city is looking for help from the state to help with its investment in the company.

Srp said keeping Conagra around has regional benefits for southern Minnesota well beyond Waseca’s borders.

Jasinski said there was a “relatively big scare” two or three years ago in which Conagra seemed poised to leave the community, which he added would have had devastating effects for the city and county, who worked together to keep the company from leaving. Agreeing to look into improvements to the water capability around Conagra’s facilities with a new water tower was part of that joint effort.

All this took place shortly after Quad Graphics left town in 2017, leaving 400 people out of work.

“A small town like out here, when we ask for money we really do need it,” Jasinski said. “We don’t do a lot of asks since I’ve been representing Waseca.”

Julian Hast / By JULIAN HAST julian.hast@apgsomn.com 

Waseca city and county officials, Minnesota senators and members of the Minnesota Senate Capital Investment Committee posed for photographs outside Waseca City Hall after the city’s state bonding funds pitch. (Julian Hast/southernminn.com)

After the presentation, Mattson said that while City Council doesn’t want to tax any more than it has to, it also wants to make investments into the community that will allow it grow, thus increasing the tax base and alleviating the tax burden of residents. The water tower project, Mattson said, seems to him “the logical way” to grow the industrial tax base.

“You gotta spend money to make money, I suppose,” he said.

Zach and Carmen Battenfeld of the Pheasant Cafe addressed the audience at the Business and Industry Celebration after accepting their bounce back award trophy from Ann Fitch, executive director of the Waseca Area Chamber of Commerce. (Julian Hast/southernminn.com)

Public comment reveals split between residents' views on city taxes
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Local democracy takes work. Waseca residents took it for a test ride during public comment at the Nov. 16 City Council meeting.

Jackie Dickie, a Waseca resident, addressed the council for half an hour during the public comment portion of the meeting, largely questioning the city’s transparency when it comes to how taxpayer dollars are being spent.

“A lot of things aren’t transparent to the citizens and that’s really unfortunate … if you’re asking us to bring back money to the city every year,” Dickie said. She went on to say the council’s announcement of a $56,418 contract to Sun-Up Construction to complete the work for the dog park, along with the approval of spending additional money if needed, misled the public given the park’s eventual total cost of $102,132, the figure which Councilor Mark Christiansen quoted at the Nov. 2 City Council meeting.

Julian Hast / By JULIAN HAST julian.hast@apgsomn.com 

Jackie Dickie, of Waseca, railed against Waseca’s taxes, which she said were too high, for 29 minutes during the public comment period of the Nov. 16 City Council meeting. (Julian Hast/southernminn.com)

“It used to be taxes were a thing when there’s something essential that’s needed … now it’s become an annual event,” Dickie went on, adding that tax abatements were just one of many examples of the council’s “ill use of funds.” “The dog park is not essential. When you have people out there working paycheck to paycheck and you ask them for more money, doing a dog park is not a priority.”

Councilor John Mansfield cut in around 20 minutes into Dickie’s comment, shortly after she asked why the council was not writing down her questions.

“You sound a lot like me,” Mansfield said, adding that he agrees with about 90% of what she said, which is why he decided to run for City Council. “I don’t know what ward you’re in, but it costs $2 to run for City Council.”

Mansfield added that he has to be “vigilant” at City Council meetings, because he’s “learned that they try to sneak through things” on the consent agenda, which is the part of City Council meetings where multiple items are passed at once by councilors’ consent, traditionally without lengthy discussion. Mayor Roy Srp later said he “took umbrage” with that comment, saying he didn’t believe anything was ever getting “slipped in” on the consent agenda by city staff. He added that consent agenda items used to be more thoroughly discussed by councilors, but this was altered by a previous city manager because it took up so much time.

Julian Hast / By JULIAN HAST julian.hast@apgsomn.com 

Mayor Roy Srp and Councilor John Mansfield offered different perspectives on transparency and taxes at the Nov. 16 City Council meeting. (Julian Hast/southernminn.com)

City Manager Lee Mattson added that councilors always receive the agenda in advance of City Council meetings and can always request to have consent agenda items moved down to the action agenda, where more discussion takes place before a vote is taken on individual items.

Councilor Mark Christiansen asked Dickie if she was going to School Board meetings and County Board of Commissioners meetings, too, to ask these questions about her taxes, to which she replied that she was.

Mansfield, whose wife, Edita Mansfield, is a Waseca School Board member, assured her that “at least one School Board member will hear your questions tonight.”

Michelle Oswald, another Waseca resident, participated in public comment after Dickie.

“Thank you for the dog park. It means a lot to me,” Oswald said, holding back tears. “It might not to a lot of people who don’t have dogs, but it means a lot to me, and I have been there nearly every day since it opened.”

Julian Hast / By JULIAN HAST julian.hast@apgsomn.com 

Michelle Oswald, of Waseca, defended the council’s choice to spend taxpayer money on amenities like the dog park and water park during the public comment period of the Nov. 16 City Council meeting. (Julian Hast/southernminn.com)

Oswald added that although she doesn’t use the water park much, she’s glad it’s there for the kids. She suggested the council look into how much taxpayer money goes toward roads, since far more money is spent there than on parks and people in other towns drive on gravel roads and “it’s not the end of the world” for them.

The mayor responds

At the end of the City Council meeting, which lasted for nearly two-and-a-half hours, Srp addressed the remarks of the public comment period. He began by explaining part of the reason Waseca residents bear higher tax burdens than they used to is because the city tax levy zero increases for five years in a row during and after the Great Recession. Srp, who sat on the council during those years, said he felt “vehemently” that the council could not ask residents for another penny, and though he said doesn’t regret that decision, he’s realized it caused problems for councils afterward, including the current one.

It would be “very extreme” for him, he said, to go back to a 0% levy increase now.

Srp went on to say he really enjoyed the public comment period.

“I love being the mayor of Waseca and I love sitting up here with this council and I love serving you folks out there,” he said. “There was great discussion tonight — 180 degrees opposite of each other a couple of times and that’s what makes Waseca great.”