OWATONNA — “Steady” is the word many election judges started off with when describing the turnout for Tuesday’s school building bond referendum.

Ahead of the 8 p.m. poll closing time, officials at a number of precincts throughout Owatonna said they were on target to meet May’s crowds, but hadn’t noticed a drastic rise or fall in numbers compared to the failed spring referendum.

After voters in May narrowly denied a request by the Owatonna Public Schools for a $116 million building bond, which would have gone toward construction of a new high school, the district altered the plan slightly over the summer.

Having selected a location on the south end of town — near the intersection of highways 14 and 218 — the school district has now asked residents for $104 million in bonding authority for the facility. In a separate question, the district also sought contingent approval of an $8 million bond for renovation of the current school into a district center.

Because each bond was a distinct measure on the ballot, the new high school could be approved without adding accompanying renovations to the current building, which the district says would likely result in much of the existing facility being demolished.

While official results were posted after deadline for this edition of the paper (they will be published online and on Facebook), voter turnout seemed on par to match the previous referendum and election judges said the morning and afternoon of Election Day were running smoothly.

“It’s been anticlimactic,” said Linda Hoffman, a judge for the first precinct of Ward 2 at the Owatonna Public Library. One of the smaller polling stations, the library had seen just over 300 voters as of 3 p.m. Tuesday. Last referendum, the total number of ballots submitted at that location was 772, with the majority voting against the bond.

Mary Wirt, head election judge at Clinton Falls Town Hall, said if anything in-person voting at the rural station seemed slightly slower than in the spring.

Wirt explained that this might be because it’s a busier time of year for farmers, adding that she expects many more Clinton Falls voters will have cast absentee or early ballots this time around. The town hall, situated just north of Owatonna along County Road 45, is where residents of the school district who live outside of the city limits can go to cast their vote.

In the last referendum, the bond lost by an overwhelming majority at Clinton Falls, with 1,277 votes against it and only 456 votes for it. With agricultural land owners being taxed on the entirety of their property, farmers are likely to face a larger financial burden should the referendum pass. However, an increase in the statewide tax credit for farmers paying school building bonds is set to gradually increase from 40% to 70% by 2023.

This measure — passed in the state Legislature shortly after the last referendum — will mean that in 2021, when residents would start to pay taxes on the bond, farmers will be getting a 55% subsidy from the state.

Overall, approval of both bonds would mean a $17.59 per month increase in taxes on a median value, $175,000 home in the Owatonna Public School District.

Although rural voters were the most overwhelmingly against the bond last spring, library voters — from a precinct in the heart of downtown — were also more likely to vote “no.”

On the other hand, voters in neighboring Ward 2, Precinct 2 — who vote at Brooktree Golf Course — came out overwhelmingly in support of the May referendum. Outside these few outliers, “yes” and “no” votes were fairly evenly split at each precinct, leading to the measure failing by only 1% of the vote.

In both referendums, precincts say they have gotten a fair number of new registrants. While some have been younger, likely-first time voters, election officials at the Owatonna Arts Center noted that out of yesterday’s same-day registrants, the majority were longtime city-dwellers who had just changed addresses.

The arts center had seen around 10 same-day registrations as of 4 p.m.

Marlys Olson, head election judge at the Owatonna Public Library, said her precinct had an abnormally high number of new registrants for the May referendum, adding that she anticipates less this time around.

“[Registration] kept us busy all day,” she said, of the springtime vote.

An unofficial tally on early and absentee voting from the Steele County Auditor’s Office showed that just over 3,000 residents filled out their ballot before this round’s Election Day. This number is almost identical to that of the previous referendum.

Official results came in after deadline for today’s print edition of the Owatonna People’s Press, but can be found online at www.southernminn.com/owatonna_peoples_press.

Reporter Bridget Kranz can be reached at 507-444-2376. Follow her on Twitter @OPPBridget. ©Copyright 2019 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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