The Regional Report: The Top 10 regional stories of 2018
1. STAPLES-MOTLEY: Motley school building set for closure, referendum and consolidation on the docket
Several changes are in the works in the Staples-Motley School District in the midst of budget concerns and facility improvement needs.
The Staples World reported the most consequential decision the board reached in 2018 was to close the school building in Motley, moving those children to the grade-appropriate facilities in Staples. Estimates show the district could reap about $500,000 in savings by eliminating use of the building, most of which would come from cutting out the operating costs. None of the potential savings accounts for staff reductions. Mike Schmidt, high school principal, said all staff would be reassigned.
Currently, Staples is home to both an elementary school and a high school, but that may change as well if district officials receive voter approval in a planned referendum effort in 2019. Plans call for the building to be at the site of the current Staples elementary school, adding on to that facility to increase its size from 47,000 square feet to 187,000 square feet. Preliminary drawings show a two-story addition for the high school and middle school, a new performing arts auditorium, a commercial kitchen and cafeteria, and six gyms along with a field house. The property would have room for a swimming pool as well.
Meanwhile, the district faced budget cuts to the tune of a quarter-million dollars. Some positions were eliminated, including "shifts in staff in the elementary school, reduction of overloads at the middle school, as well as a cut of 1.9 full-time equivalent (or FTE) teachers, media resources at the high school and middle school, one FTE in the Connections program, one high school librarian FTE (and) one possible high school FTE."
The budget cuts also axed the Accelerated Reading program in the district and reduced to part time a position associated with College in the Schools.
2. PEQUOT LAKES: Mixed views on park expansion shake up city government
Residents of Pequot Lakes experienced a whole new world in 2018—a post-bypass world.
After decades of hand-wringing over how much the fate of the city was tied to the route of Highway 371, this year became one of hand-wringing over the the city council's plans to expand a park and alter the city's landscape. In March, the Echo Journal reported business owners approached the council with concerns about a planned Trailside Park expansion, in the works since 2015. Among plans were the addition of a flag display and a splash pad, but most notably, the removal of a portion of Patriot Avenue (formerly Highway 371) to expand the park westward.
Opposition to the plan picked up steam as Election Day neared, prompting the formation of a group "People for Pequot," which offered endorsements of candidates who presented skeptical views of the park proposal and the associated tax hikes. The park skeptics won the day, sweeping the mayoral and council seats and shifting the trajectory of the city's future planning endeavors. What 2019 will bring for the city's future is not yet written, but one thing is for sure—new leaders and the residents who supported them will have their say.
3. PIERZ: Voters support bond referendum for schools
On its second try within a year, the Pierz School District got the answer it wanted from voters to support construction and improvements to its schools.
A bond referendum seeking about $10 million won approval, giving district officials the go-ahead construct a new gymnasium and classrooms, improve the elementary school parking lot, build a band room and improve the kitchen and cafeteria at the high school.
The proposal was the second time the district sought additional funds from voters—a referendum asking for nearly double the amount at $18.45 million failed by a wide margin in May 2017.
The school board pared down its 2018 request, eliminating the construction of a new auditorium at the high school from its wish list and reducing the square footage of improvement areas.
In October, the Morrison County Record reported the district was well on its way to fulfilling the goals of the referendum. The school board awarded construction bids for the project totaling $9,534,734.
4. CROSBY: New businesses continue to crop up
It's no secret—there's a new dawn in Crosby, and those seeking small business success are taking notice.
A number of new or expanded business ideas crossed the desks of city council members this year, and the changing face of the Cuyuna Range city is in the process of morphing further to cater to an influx of cyclists clamoring for the red dirt of the nearby mountain biking recreation area.
Doug Arndt of Cuyuna Hospitality Co. told the Crosby City Council he plans to convert the building at 30 W. Main St. to a taproom and wine bar with a wood-fired pizza restaurant, while adding a hostel upstairs and possibly meeting rooms downstairs. The company also intends to tear down an apartment building at First Avenue and First Street Southwest, replacing it with another hostel called Crosby Lodge.
The city council Nov. 13 accepted commercial redevelopment grant funding on behalf of Victuals and Rave Creamworks, another business planning its Crosby debut. The grant funds will be used to demolish a building on Main Street.
5. MOTLEY: Council disciplines police chief, who retires
Former Motley Police Chief Ron Smith retired this year, shortly after the city council agreed to discipline the long-time law enforcement officer.
The Staples World reported Smith was the subject of two closed sessions probing potential discipline by the council following a conduct complaint. The council voted to suspend Smith for five days without pay and place him on probation for six months, also revoking his privilege to take home a squad car until further notice.
The reason? City Clerk/Treasurer Lacey Smieja told the World the subject of two closed meetings concerning Smith's conduct included violations of the city's employee manual requiring annual firearms training and a section dictating an officer be "properly armed for the protection of society and themselves." The discipline also centered on violations of the city's personnel policy, including the following sections: willful misconduct or insubordination, failure to report or refusal to work when necessary to keep essential services operating and incompetence in the performance of duties.
Smith announced his retirement following the discipline after 29 years in the field. Replacing Smith as chief was Jason Borash. Borash served as a police officer in the city beginning April 2015 and previously served in the Morrison County Sheriff's Office.
6. LAKE SHORE: Voters say 'no' to bonding, but will face steep tax increase anyway
Paying for road projects and a new city hall building with bonds didn't work out for the Lake Shore City Council after voters rejected the proposal in November.
The city hall project will not happen in 2019. But the road projects will—funded directly by property owners in the city, the Echo Journal reported. The council approved a 2019 property tax levy that's 27.8 percent higher than the previous year's, an increase of $227,495. Much of this increase is attributable to $200,000 in planned road improvements. Without the option to bond, city officials said they expect to continue levying for road improvements identified in the five-year capital improvement plan—meaning it doesn't appear taxes will return to previous levels in the future.
The bonding issue separated incumbent Mayor Kevin Egan and challenger Don McFarland as well. McFarland, a former mayor of the city, said he ran in opposition to the bonds—although Egan bested him by two votes. McFarland did not request a recount, because he said he was satisfied with the failure of the bonding questions.
Before the election, the council voted 4-1 in favor of issuing the bonds, but a petition garnered enough signatures to force the issue to the ballot. Council member Doug Miller said voters didn't understand that voting against the bonds doesn't mean the projects have to stop. That was just a way to pay for them, he said.
7. AREA CITIES: Officials grapple with regulating vacation rentals
People love to vacation in the lakes area, that's clear.
What's less clear is whether—and how—local governments should regulate short-term vacation rentals in private homes, an increasingly popular means by which vacationers experience the north woods.
Before the 2018 tourism season, the Crosby-Ironton Courier reported the cities of Cuyuna and Ironton each considered the issue after requests to permit vacation rentals within business districts. Cuyuna officials opted for further research, while Ironton officials denied the request, adding short-term stays would be permitted only in hotels or motels.
The city of Lake Shore undertook the issue later in the year, agreeing to set stricter regulations for those renting out their homes—or, as is often the case, renting out properties specifically purchased with the vacation rental business in mind. The Echo Journal reported the ordinance restricts the number of times the properties can be rented in a year and does not permit more than one party to rent a property within a given week. These are among numerous other measures intended to reduce the impact on neighboring properties.
On the county level, Crow Wing County board members discussed whether the county should have a role in regulating the burgeoning business. The discussion came in response to a complaint from a neighbor, who described the many challenges presented by living next door to a vacation rental. This wasn't the first time the matter made it to the county radar, as concerned property owners asked commissioners to address the issue in 2015 as well.
The Morrison County Board elected not to move forward with regulations of short-term vacation rentals, the Morrison County Record reported. Commissioners cited potential "unintentional consequences" of regulating the properties, including the changing of tax classification to a seasonal recreational property.
8. DEERWOOD: Council member resigns in protest
In January, the city of Deerwood gained a full-time police officer and lost one of its longest-serving city council members.
Council member Debby Leonard resigned her seat following a vote during which a council majority approved the hiring of Officer Jesse Smith to the city's department. Leonard, who voiced her opposition to hiring Smith at a previous meeting, voted against it when it came before the council again. Although not cited in her resignation letter, Leonard confirmed the Smith hire was the reason. Leonard served as a council member for 11 years and was elected for another term in 2016.
Before earning the full-time post, Smith worked as a part-time officer in the city and is the chief of the Cuyuna Police Department. He was a full-time officer for the Crosby Police Department from 1999 through July 2017, when he resigned. His resignation followed a tumultuous four years on the department, during which he was placed on paid administrative leave twice and terminated twice. In both instances, an arbitrator with the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services ruled in Smith's favor, ordering his reinstatement to the force.
The council filled the vacancy weeks later by selecting Linda Peterson from a pool of two candidates, the Crosby-Ironton Courier reported.
9. STAPLES: 2 apartment complexes on the way
2018 was the year of housing in Staples, after a study in 2016 concluded the city needed more options for workers and residents.
Two apartment complexes are on the way toward construction after much deliberation by council members and economic development officials—one with market rate housing, and the other set to be affordable housing, according to the Staples World. The Staples Economic Development Authority supported the housing developments, citing the many people who work in the community but are unable to find someplace to live.
The affordable housing complex faced some opposition from the public. Concerns raised include increased burden on city resources, questions about potential tax-increment financing and increased crime. In response, officials from the Central Minnesota Housing Partnership noted data does not support an increase in crime, and the agency went on to conduct its own study on the parcel to determine whether its $8 million investment met a need. In November, the housing project received funding from the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency.
10. MILLE LACS COUNTY: Judge throws out county's counterclaim in lawsuit with band
This fall, a federal judge sided with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe as part of an ongoing lawsuit between the band and Mille Lacs County, the Mille Lacs Messenger reported.
Judge Susan Richard Nelson agreed with the band that the county's counterclaim in the lawsuit had no standing. The counterclaim sought declaration the reservation did not exist at all, an answer to the band's claim the boundary established in 1855 should be recognized today.
In a 34-page document, the county referenced its claim the reservation does not exist about 60 times. The county based this claim on a longstanding belief the reservation was disestablished in 1855 and never re-established.
While the counterclaim was dismissed, the original lawsuit continues in federal court.
Prompted by the law enforcement jurisdictional disagreement between the county and the tribe, the lawsuit would seek to permit the Mille Lacs Tribal Police to patrol all 61,000 acres within the 1855 boundaries. The county, meanwhile, argued the reservation covers just over 4,000 acres. The law enforcement agreement dissolved between the Mille Lacs County Sheriff's Office and the Mille Lacs Tribal Police in 2016. The dissolution meant sheriff's deputies had for a time primary legal authority over areas previously patrolled by tribal police. The parties later reached an agreement concerning their law enforcement agencies.
-- Compiled by Chelsey Perkins, community editor. Perkins may be reached at 218-855-5874 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @DispatchChelsey or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dispatchchelsey.