MEDFORD — Finger-pointing appears to be the order of the day as a number of Medford residents express mounting frustration over being shut down at their attempts to be more involved in upcoming projects slated for the city’s near future.
“We simply have no voice,” said Erin Sammon, a resident off Main Street in Medford and member of the Medford Civic Club.
Over the past month, Sammon and a group of 40-some residents have been feeling frustrated, unheard, and fed up. With millions of dollars of infrastructure projects on schedule for the next handful of years, the citizens are claiming that they haven’t been given a fair chance to be a part of the process or to even be heard by Mayor Lois Nelson or members of the city council.
“We are being misrepresented,” said Danny Thomas, a Medford resident and former mayor of the small town. “And the mayor is running the show.”
Just after the new year, Thomas met with nine other Medford residents and business owners to try to brainstorm and problem-solve the issue of a community entangled in battle with its leadership. With projects such as the Main Street reconstruction, the potential wastewater hookup to Faribault, the need for a new municipal building, and a variety of other projects the pop up throughout the year, the citizen group agreed that the priorities of the projects need to be better vetted and that a need for citizen subcommittees should be enacted immediately.
“We need a proactive approach for gathering public input,” said John Anhorn, a Main Street resident and business owner as well as a member of the Medford School Board. “
Mayor Nelson, however, states that the unhappy group of citizens is among the minority in town, adding that she has had very few people even express concerns with her as of late.
“I have had little to no public feedback, but I do know that we have some vocal representation around town,” Nelson said. “Now we have a former mayor coming around which can lead to some real chaos. We’re having people jump up like popcorn.”
The people disagree, stating that time and time again they have tried to approach the mayor and have been dismissed. Sammon added that anytime someone in the community wants something brought up at a city council meeting that they have to first approach a city council member and go through them. Even then, though, she says that the mayor will steamroll over the comments and move on.
“There’s just not a lot of dialog,” Sammon said.
She’s not alone in that opinion of the current city leadership.
“The overall consensus is that the mayor has her mind set,” added Luke Brown, a Medford resident off Main Street. “But when it comes to these projects, our community is at stake financially and we just want the city to do their due diligence.”
The cause for the most concern the citizens agree on is the tug-of-war battle between the reconstruction of Main Street and the state of their wastewater treatment plant. While the reconstruction of Medford’s Main Street — or County Road 45 — is already scheduled to take place in 2021, the members of the brainstorming session firmly believe that it is not the number one concern for Medford at this time. Thomas asserted that their wastewater plant is the town’s number one asset and therefore should be the city council’s only priority.
“We can fight over Main Street in 15 different directions,” Thomas said. “But our wastewater plant is the ticket. If we connect with Faribault, our bills are going to skyrocket by one-and-a-half times. This is huge for businesses and residents.”
Mark Heasser, who runs Jennie-O Turkey in Medford that resides in four buildings, noted that type of increase in a water bill would “slaughter” the business.
In April 2019, the Medford City Council officially elected to pursue regionalization with the wastewater treatment plant in Faribault. The decision came after Seth Peterson, the city’s wastewater and water engineer from Bolton & Menk, presented his findings of the potential costs of Medford regionalizing with Faribault or Owatonna as well as the option of upgrading their own plant. Peterson presented that the option of regionalizing with Faribault is the most cost-effective option coming in just around $6 million overall capital cost. Upgrading Medford’s own wastewater treatment plant was estimated at $7,080,000. The option of regionalizing with Owatonna was an additional $2 million in cost compared to the Faribault option, according to Peterson.
While the group is not denying that the connection with Faribault may be the best option, they feel strongly that the Medford City Council has not gathered all the information that they could when it comes to either upgrading their own wastewater plant or connecting with Owatonna.
“If the Faribault route is correct, so be it,” Brown said, calling for Medford to seek information outside of Bolton & Menk. “But let that be correctly identified. Don’t rely on just one opinion. Where are the bids from Owatonna?”
According to Eric Meester, president of Nero Engineering who was contracted by the City of Owatonna to do a wastewater study that included a possible connection with Medford, the conversation of the two Steele County regionalizing ended swiftly.
“When this first came up a couple years ago, we had a meeting with the City of Owatonna and the City of Medford,” Meester explained. “When the discussions got started it seemed like it was going well, but when the City of Owatonna presented that they would like to have some oversight on the discharge coming from Medford if they were going to take on a new industry — well, that seemed to be kind of a deal breaker.”
Meester added that Owatonna was open to exploring the option of letting Medford hook up with their wastewater treatment plant, but wanted to stipulate some oversight if a new industry was looking to move into Medford and require their discharge serves. He explained that permits, size restrictions, and potentially requiring an industry to do some level of pre-treatment with their discharge is necessary for any municipality with a wastewater plant.
“The tone we got from the mayor in Medford was they didn’t want anyone telling them what they could or couldn’t do,” Meester said. “It was just sort of a poor place to start the discussion with Owatonna by digging their heels in and saying they’re not going to let anyone tell them what to do.”
When deciding to explore the option with Faribault, however, communication from the Medford City Hall was that it was the most cost-effective approach to an infrastructure project that needed to be done in order for the town to grow.
“It’s never a good time to satisfy the public,” Nelson said, acknowledging that no one is ever happy about a new burden on their taxes. “But if we’re going to be proactive and work for our future — and thankfully our council recognizes and appreciates growth — then we have to have the proper infrastructure.”
Thomas noted that the community is in no way against the mayor or city council, but that they simply want to see all avenues pursued before implementing a project that will weigh heavy on the taxpayers. He pointed out that Waterville was able to upgrade their own wastewater plant in 2017 by securing more than $6 million in grants and low-interest loans and that he would like to see Medford look into those same opportunities.
‘We just want to be involved’
The other push from the citizen brainstorming session was to put a limit on how much is spent during the Main Street reconstruction project. While the group understands that Steele County has the funds to pursue the project in 2021, they feel that all the bells and whistles when it comes to sidewalks and road expansions are unnecessary at this time — especially with the dire state of the wastewater plant that just sustained a broken flow meter this week and has a spectrometer that will need to be replaced at the cost of up to $5,000.
“We want to advance at a proper pace,” Thomas said, adding that the community would be happy to just have Main Street repaved and see some updates to the lighting. “We don’t want to just open the floodgate and have everything hit us all at once.”
“It just has to be sustainable,” Brown added.
According to Thomas, the city council was approached with the idea of starting a subcommittee for the Main Street project that would have representation from both the council and the community. From what he was told, however, the request was met with a simple “no” from the mayor and wasn’t discussed again.
“We just want to be involved,” Anhorn asserted. “It felt like we had good discussion during one of the open house meetings [regarding Main Street] when the plan was just conceptual, but that was kind of it. Since then there has been very limited discussion or time for public input.”
Nelson said that the Main Street project has been discussed since the 1990s and that most of the public is unaware that the city has both capital and financial plans that address it.
“We aren’t just dreaming these things up,” Nelson said. “I can appreciate some community members’ concerns, but you don’t have to look very far to find communities our size, smaller, and even bigger that are dying. We are a growing community and these things need to be addressed.”
As far as the lack of time for public input, Nelson stated that there is a public comment period at the beginning of every city council meeting — something that she pointed out is almost never met with people wanting to talk. Beyond that, she added that the parliamentary procedure of local government is not to accept comments from the public as they move through the agenda during their meetings, even though at times the Medford City Council has allowed it.
“That’s just not the general rule for operating a meeting,” Nelson said. “People have to realize and respect that.”
For now, the community members state that they simply want to create an open line of communication with the mayor, city staff, and city council. They know that growth is coming, and they aren’t trying to stop it. They just want to be involved.
“Medford is a bedroom community, which is the way the residents of Medford like it. We are not hungry for growth,” Thomas said. “As important as growth is to our community, we cannot advance growth too fast that the financial burden falls on the residents or the business owners.”
“We need to create growth slowly without turning this community into a ghost town,” he continued. “What we’re trying to do is too fast, too much at once. You can’t put all this stuff together and think that us as residents are going to pay for it.”