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City updated on school's condition

December 16, 2018


Before the city of Winnebago assumes ownership of a school building, Blue Earth Area (BEA) School District will have to do some cleaning.


Particularly, the mold located in the boys locker room that is being used as an office by custodial staff.


Dana Hlebichuk of Widseth/Smith/Nolting (WSM) in Rochester says mold on the ceiling is the first thing he noticed.


Hlebichuk says he brought the problem to the attention of Al Gieser, maintenance supervisor for the district.


“I said, you got to move this guy out. You shouldn't have anybody working in that room,” says Hlebichuk. “You got to get them out of there.”


City Attorney David Frundt has been working on a purchase agreement with the district's attorney to buy the facility for $2 once Southern Plains Education Cooperative (SPEC) re-locates to Fairmont next school year.


While a draft version of an agreement stipulates the school is being sold in “as is” condition, Frundt says the district may have to clean up the mold.


“They probably have some obligation to do something about it,” he says.


Winnebago officials several weeks ago hired WSM for less than $2,500 to inspect the facility and put together a report.


And for the most part, council members liked what they heard that their last meeting on Dec. 11.


“The building is in satisfactory condition,” Hlebichuk says. “You could get another 50 years easily if it is just maintained a little.”


Hlebichuk says the structural systems of the high school building constructed in 1919 and an addition in 1953 are sound and good.


“I've seen much worse buildings,” he says. “This is in great shape compared to some I've seen.”


Hlebichuk suggests some uses for the school could be an assisted-living living center, day care, police center or to provide EMS training.


Winnebago leaders have said they plan to use the facility to offer vocational training, child care and possibly host community events.


Council members asked Hlebichk to put together cost estimates for repairs that are needed which include tuck pointing, electrical, air ventilation and mechanical system, windows and roofing.


When BEA officials closed the elementary school in 2016 they cited deferred maintenance costs totaling $5 million to $8 million as a reason.


At that time, Southern Plains Education Cooperative (SPEC) was looking for a building to house its students and moved from Fairmont after signing a lease agreement with BEA School District.


SPEC has purchased the Lincoln School building in Fairmont and renovations are expected to cost at least $10 million.


At the Dec. 10 School Board meeting, SPEC director Sarah Mittelstadt told the board that construction work at the new site won't be done by the start of next school year.


We're in the bidding process now,” she says. “It is quite an extensive list. This snow has made them a little nervous.”


Mittelstadt says bids for the project will be opened on Dec. 18 and some could be approved at that time. She says that SPEC is hoping to take possession of the building on Oct. 7.


City Administrator Chris Ziegler says a big change made in the purchase agreement has been the closing date of June 30.


“We are now shooting for November 1 with the option to extend up to 240 days,” he says. “We have no intentions of pushing anyone out.”


Complaints put officers on paid leave

December 8, 2018


Two local police departments are each short one police officer pending the outcome of investigations.


Blue Earth City Administrator Tim Ibisch says Chad Bonin was placed on paid administrative leave on Thursday as a result of a complaint filed against him last month.


The City Council at their Monday night meeting voted to place Bonin on leave after discussing the matter in closed-session.


Ibisch says at this time he is unable to release any details about the complaint.


“The city is hiring a private firm to review the complainant information,” he says. “Once they are under contract that information can be made public.”


Bonin has been with the department since March 12, 2012, and is earning an annual salary of $60, 765.


Fairmont Police Chief Mike Hunter says officer Craig Fowler has been on paid leave since the last week of October.


Hunter says an outside agency is investigating an off-duty incident involving Fowler and he hopes it will be completed sometime next week.


“I will review the investigation report and present the results to the Civil Service Commission, who will approve or reject any discipline recommendation,” he says.


Fowler was sentenced for misdemeanor domestic assault in October 2017 and given certain conditions to follow, which includes not having any same or similar assault charges while on probation.


The 13-year veteran officer was placed on unpaid leave after being charged with child endangerment/bodily injury stemming from a May 13, 2018, incident in Iowa.


Fowler was put on paid leave after a judge dismissed the probation violation allegation last October in Martin County Court.


Zierke may bring workers to Bago

December 6, 2018


A company that left Winnebago last year may be bringing some workers back to the city.


Brad Wolf, a member of the city's Economic Development Authority board, says he recently spoke with Greg Zierke, owner of Zierke Built Manufacturing (ZBM), Inc.


He has no more room in Fairmont,” says Wolf. “He's hoping to get some welders back in Winnebago.”


Wolf told EDA board members at their Wednesday meeting that Zierke may not sell a vacant company building located on Sixth Avenue Southeast.


He says Zierke did not say exactly how many welders would actually be employed in Winnebago.


ZBM officials cited inadequate space and difficulty in hiring skilled welders as reason for re-locating.


When the company left Winnebago, it employed 40 people and operated two buildings covering about 70,000 square feet.


In other business, the EDA may be looking to hire Community and Economic Development Associates (CEDA) to work on business projects.


We definitely need help,” says board member Jean Anderson. “It's something we should look into.”


According to its website, CEDA was founded in 1986 and is based in Chatfield. It serves communities in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.


Faribault County and the city of Blue Earth each pay CEDA at least $50,000 a year to provide economic development services.


Mary Kennedy of CEDA told board members she will now be working four days for Blue Earth and that Annie Leibel has been added to their office at the Ag Center to work four days for the county.


Mayor Jeremiah Schutt says he's interested in meeting with CEDA officials to see what the agency can offer the city.


“You'd get the whole CEDA team, with over 100 years of experience,” says Kennedy. “Anything that an economic development coordinator would do, we could do.”


EDA board members asked Kennedy if she could have CEDA officials attend their next meeting scheduled for Jan. 2.


Gas leak reported at Heartland

December 4, 2018


Winnebago police, fire department and ambulance responded to a gas leak at Heartland Senior Living located in the northwest part of town Tuesday.


Police Chief Eric Olson says around 2:30 p.m. a construction crew working at the assisted-living facility reported they had struck a gas line.


Olson says the leak was contained around 4 p.m. and that CenterPoint Energy representatives and firefighters remained on the scene.


“Genesis (Academy) and Heartland Senior Living facility were evacuated,” says Olson. “Heartland residents were taken to the Winnebago Municipal Center.”


Patrick Rafferty, who oversees operations at Heartland, says the facility currently has 18 residents.


“The main thing is that proper procedures were taken and everyone is safe,” says Rafferty. “We will be looking to review the process, but from what I have heard it went well.”


Attempts to contact someone from Genesis Classical Academy for comment were unsuccessful. Currently, there are 70 students enrolled in grades pre-K through 7th.


Work on a $3 million, 16,000 square-foot addition at the former Parker Oaks nursing home began more than two weeks ago.


There will be12 assisted-living units on one level and located on the west side of the current facility.


The new addition also will provide offices for administration and staff as well as space for the community to hold events.


Agreement for school sent to BEA

December 2, 2018


A purchase agreement for the Winnebago school building has been sent the Blue Earth Area (BEA) School Board for review.


City Council members this week got a glance at the several-page document prepared by City Attorney David Frundt.


Under the draft agreement, the City of Winnebago would take over ownership of the building at the end of next June.


That coincides with the end of the Southern Plains Education Cooperative lease,” says City Administrator Chris Ziegler. “The district would maintain the building, insurance and all those things until the lease runs out.”


Mayor Jeremiah Schutt supports the idea of using the school as a vocational training center, however, he needs more information before the council approves the agreement at their December meeting.


I still want to see some hard proof of what's it cost to insure, what's it cost for utilities,” says Schutt. “This isn't going to come free. I want some hard actual facts.”


Ziegler says figures obtained from BEA officials put operating expenses at about $150,000 a year, but he expects it to be less than that.


The city has hired a Rochester firm to evaluate the school's condition and preliminary findings have been positive.


The summary was it is in good shape and needs minor maintenance,” says Ziegler. “The report should be completed by the council meeting in December. It will be public at that point.”


BEA officials have said the building has deteriorated in the past several years and have estimated it would cost between $5 million and $8 million to fix.


Councilman Scott Robertson says the school is, “Way too good of shape to be destroyed.”


Schutt says he wants a good solid plan so the building isn't a burden on taxpayers to keep it going.


I don't want to be Mr. Negative, but we have budget meetings coming up and this is going to have to be included. This isn't a free building,” he says. “We have to have our ducks in a row, who is going to be in charge and take this on and do something with it.”


At the last School Board meeting, board member Jeremy Coxworth wanted to know if the agreement will address what he called “the elephant in the room.”

Are we going to put a restriction if they want to put Genesis Academy in that building?” Coxworth asked.


Ziegler says the agreement at this time makes no mention of a non-compete clause.


I don't understand why either of the parties would want one,” he says.


Ziegler says the city would lease the school's gymnasium for girls gymnastics through the 2020 season and would negotiate its future use.


Also, city officials are open to allowing Southern Plains Education Cooperative to lease the building if needed for the 2019-2020 school year.


Former employee sues Zierke Built

December 1, 2018


A former employee of Zierke Built Manufacturing, Inc. has waited long enough and wants to get paid.


Leroy John Larson has filed a civil lawsuit seeking wages and sales commissions earned in 2017.


Although the company moved its operations from Winnebago to Fairmont last year, a judge has determined the case should be heard in Faribault County.


According to court documents, Larson began working as a sales representative with Zierke Built in May 2008.


Larson, who was earning an annual salary of $73,500 plus commissions, submitted his resignation last February.


Court papers say that Larson last year made a verbal demand that he be paid some wages and commissions earned in 2017.


Kyle Zierke, the company's vice president, reportedly told Larson last January that he was working on finalizing calculations for the commissions.


Larson was never paid and in April submitted a written demand for all back wages and commissions.


In his suit, Larson is seeking judgment for an amount in excess of $50,000, attorney fees, expenses and “any other and future relief the court deems equitable and appropriate.”


The next hearing in the case is a scheduling conference that will be conducted by telephone on Dec. 4.

Board member: He, public misled

November 24, 2018


A member of the Blue Earth Area School Board gave the out-going superintendent and board chairman a piece of his mind at their last board meeting.


Jeremy Coxworth says an investigation on how district officials handled disciplinary action against four football players charged with assault isn't what he voted for.


What the public perceives happened is that we hired Soldo to come in and run a full investigation to determine there was no wrongdoing on the school's part,” says Coxworth. “At some point in time it went to an internal review, which is not an investigation.”


Last February, board members hired Soldo Consulting of Woodbury to determine whether the process used by the district in its investigation was proper.


Coxworth contends someone in the district contacted Michelle Soldo and told her what to investigate.


There is so much deception going on here and it is really getting sickening,” he says. “I have parents and people in the community calling me all the time and saying that this is B.S. I'm sick of these phone calls, this crap has to stop.”


At one point during the public comment portion, a mother of a teen charged in the incident spoke out.


Naomi Ochsendorf says she wants to know what criteria is used when making decisions regarding discipline. She says she has contacted the activities director, but he has not responded.


Ochsendorf says it appears district officials were pressured by news reports, social media and outcry in the community when they suspended the four teens for 10 days and did not allow them to participate in extracurricular activities.


What was or was not used a year ago and what has changed to make that response drastically different a month ago?” she says. “Was there a mistake made? Say it, I'd like to hear that.”


Last month, Blue Earth police arrested two teen males from Winnebago ---- 16 and 17 years old --- after allegedly assaulting a 16-year-old male teen at the Blue Ridge Apartments.


Ochsendorf says district officials should stop hiding behind school politics and data privacy laws and be more open with the public.


Coxworth agrees, saying, “Sooner or later it is going to come out what happened.”


Homeowners to pay cost of project

November 18, 2018


For the first time, how much the street and infrastructure project in the northwest part of Winnebago will cost homeowners was made public.


And, it does mean everyone in the city will pay a share.


City Engineer Travis Winter says preliminary estimates show that property owners within the project area will be assessed nearly $700 annually for 20 years, while other homeowners will pay about $300 a year.


Residents will have a chance to give their input on the estimates during an open house set for 5 p.m. on Nov. 27 at the Municipal Center. A special council meeting will follow at 7 p.m. and a bid could be awarded.


City Administrator Chris Ziegler says at this time water and sewer rates will not have to be increased to help pay for the reconstruction project.


With the state funding and grants the city has received, says Winter, the project is still a good one and should be done.


Last month, the council received four bids for the project and they were quite a “sticker shock.”


Three of them came in at $10 million or more and the lowest one at $8.9 million was nearly $1 million more than the engineer's estimate.


Council members agree that improvements to the streets and addressing flooding in the area should have been dealt with years ago.


If we wait any longer, another 20 years, it's just going to cost more,” says council member Jean Anderson.


Winter agrees with Anderson, saying, “Not doing anything also has a cost.”


After the October council meeting, city officials had 91 days to decide whether to accept the low bid or to restart the bidding process.


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