What the Polk County Board was going to consider
BALSAM LAKE – The regular monthly meeting of the Polk County Board of Supervisors originally slated for Tuesday, March 17, was postponed to no particular date, at press time, due to large crowd gathering concerns, a move that unfolded in mere hours after a cascade of decisions to cancel or postpone public meetings, including a public hearing to air opinions on the future users and/or nonusers of the Stower Seven Lakes State Trail, originally set for Unity High School auditorium for Monday, March 16, but again postponed indefinitely.
The Polk County Board had several items of action to consider, including a possible reversal of interest for the Clam Falls Dam, which is slated to be drawn down in the coming months, with removal in the next two years. A growing public effort to stop or reverse the drawdown has reached county board consideration for possible support.
The action item was a proposed resolution directing the Polk County administrator to investigate options for saving the Clam Falls Dam, which the county does not own nor has any direct interest in, unlike the Atlas Dam, which the county owns and has an adjacent park and pond.
Polk County has stayed more or less out of the process of dam removal plans by the power utility that owns it, but citizen concerns have been expressed to several board members, who have discussed the planned removal in several committees of late.
“Basically, I think we should get someone to get the DNR to not do the drawdown yet,” stated Supervisor Chris Nelson, who sponsored the resolution to investigate those Clam Falls Dam options. ”That would give us more time to try and get this worked out, to see if there’s a process to hold this up.”
The comments came at the Polk County general government committee meeting on Thursday, March 12, where the now-postponed meeting of the full board was being discussed.
The comparison between the Clam Falls Dam and the Atlas Dam maintenance issue was brought up several items, but county Administrator Vince Netherland and board Chair Dean Johansen noted several differences, including the price tags, which are dramatically different.
But Nelson said the difference between saving and drawing down and removing the Calm Falls Dam is “several hundred thousand dollars,” and should “at least be investigated before it becomes too late.”
Johansen disagreed with Nelson, stating the that there was very little public interest in saving the Clam Falls Dam, as they don’t have a county standing in the matter.
“I just don’t think it’s a good use of taxpayers money to save a private campground, without access to the public,” Johansen said. “This has nothing to do with public lands.”
“There’s no public money in this resolution. I’m not for spending Polk County funds, but I am in favor of finding a way to try and save it,” Nelson sad.
The committee voted to send the Clam Falls Dam future possibility to the full county board, although when they will get to that meeting remains unclear.
Also on the county board agenda was a resolution to set the compensation for several elected officials, which has been discussed in several committees and was set to be considered for a final value at the board meeting.
Two other items on the agenda asked the board to support specific recommendations to state officials involving the Second Amendment and making the county a “sanctuary” for legal firearms ownership. The measure drew a crowd of almost two dozen supporters at the Thursday meeting, but there was no real committee discussion, except on any perceived need or legal impact of the resolution.
The other resolution the board was/is going to consider involves the support of mandatory minimum sentencing for certain crimes, as well as support for a so-called “three strikes” law for criminals with two convictions in a decade, that their third “strike” would have specific minimum prison consequences.
“It is a lobbying resolution, looking at sentencing guidelines,” county attorney Malia Malone noted, adding that one of the issues with such a law is that more cases might not be settled without a trial, taxing the court system, since a third strike might require prison, if convicted, leaving defendants with no real loss if they go to trial instead of a guilty plea deal. “There’s a real concern attorneys might move more cases to trial … clogging the courts.”
Netherland noted that while there is no perceived cost on the resolution, it may lead to long-term additional costs that could be significant, requiring extra court personnel, another judge, etc., if passed. “Are we prepared for those extra costs of, say, an extra judge or assistant district attorney?”
“We’re going to have to pay for them (convicts) anyway,” Nelson responded. “Polk County is getting known for repeat drug and methamphetamine dealers.”
The county board is also expected to get several updates on a variety of pending issues, from the latest on the Polk County Fairgrounds projects for a new truck-pulling setup, as well as the latest on the delayed sale of the Woodley property, after concerns were raised about the legality of just one county committee reviewing or deciding on the sale and effectively subdividing the property like a developer.
“Is that in the county’s best interest?” asked Polk County general government committee Chair Russ Arcand.
Nelson agreed that there may be questions to answer on the whole process, as well as the decision to sell.
“Do they (one county committee) have the authority to subdivide?” Nelson asked. ”It’s basically a minority of the county board taking a county asset, subdividing it and making that decision without the approval of the full county board.”
It was believed that the full board might get a chance to weigh in on the Woodley sale, and they may be asked to consider the proposed auction sale or the possibility of turning the property into a county park down the road.
As of press time, there have been no new dates or proposed ways to conduct the public hearing on the Stower Trail and the Polk County Board meeting under the new normal of small public crowds.
“All of these things are fluid,” Netherland said of the hearing and the board meeting. “We’ll change as necessary.”
Senator Schachtner introduces flooding resilience legislation
Sen. Schachtner joins Governor Evers and lawmakers across the state in supporting the Flood Prevention and Resilience Plan MADISON – Today, Senator Patty Schachtner (D-Somerset) and lawmakers from across the state introduced a Flood Prevention and Resilience Plan with Governor Tony Evers. Senator Schachtner has introduced LRB-5597 to put $5 million more over two years into the Wisconsin Disaster Fund to help small communities respond to and recover from flooding disasters. It will also decrease the municipal matching requirement and broaden eligible expenses that the state can reimburse. The National Weather Service annual Spring Flood Outlook reported a well above normal risk of flooding along the upper Mississippi River and some tributaries. Meanwhile, it is estimated that over $40 billion worth of Wisconsin properties, businesses and homes are located in a 100-year floodplain. As spring approaches, the time for action and preparation is now. “Northwestern Wisconsin is no stranger to spring flooding. This package of legislation will support our communities in their efforts to combat flooding and provide them the resources and infrastructure they need to respond to flooding disasters,” said Senator Schachtner. “Folks in Wisconsin continue to be adversely affected by extreme precipitation and weather—I have seen firsthand how families and communities have had to rebuild because of flooding in areas across our state,” said Governor Tony Evers. “I visited homes across our state last year and heard from the families who are asking us to help them prepare and prevent flooding and to keep families and their homes, farms, and businesses safe. The state needs to start leading on this issue, and these bills are an important step at giving families and communities’ peace of mind and the tools they need to not only recover and rebuild, but to prevent flood damage in the future. I am hopeful that the Legislature will work quickly to take this legislation up before the end of session to ensure we’re doing everything we can to help Wisconsin’s families before flooding season this spring.”
Major breakthrough? Council approves Civic sale

ST. CROIX FALLS – The St. Croix Falls Common Council worked deep into the night again. As they entered a closed session following their regular open agenda on Monday, March 9, they returned to open session and revealed that they have struck a tentative deal to sell the Civic Auditorium to a Twin Cities developer, along with the adjacent corner parcel, possibly alleviating legal hurdles to using tax increment money in a Civic rehabilitation.
The terms of the sale are slim and appear to have a number of contingencies, but it appears the 1917 Civic Auditorium will be included in a sale of the adjacent vacant lot on the corner of Washington and Louisiana, which was formerly the home of the Falls 5 movie theater, but has been owned by the city for years after razing the blighted building just under a decade ago.
According to city clerk Bonita Leggitt, the negotiated purchase agreement has nine different addendums or conditions to move forward, crafted by the two sides’ attorneys, several of which may take some time to finalize, but appear to address making sure the sale of the property ensures eligibility for the recently denied tax increment money, as well as other details to be revealed in the coming weeks.
While the use of the tax increment money is still being reviewed, there appears to be no immediate, specific timeline on the deal, in spite of the Tax Increment District No. 1 officially closing out in less than two weeks, after 27 years. While there are the noted addendums and contingencies, there will likely need to be a finalized developer’s agreement, and it may be necessary to forward the agreement on to several affected parties, including the St. Croix Falls Joint Review Board, which represents the taxing jurisdictions affected by the tax increment district, which is the city, county, school district and technical college.
It is unclear if other legal hurdles will need to be jumped, or if any of the addendums are “deal breakers” if not fulfilled. While the brokered deal seems to be a way to finally put the Civic issue to bed, once and for all, it is not set in stone and apparently does seem to hinge, at least in part, on the TIF money eligibility for the Civic project.
“They, the attorneys, have to figure some of that out,” Leggitt said. “It’s unknown yet, but it hinges on that (TIF eligibility).”
In a press release Tuesday from the nonprofit Friends of The Civic Auditorium, the group confirmed the Civic sale in a statement: “Though there are many contingencies to this sale that must now be met before the sale is complete, this major breakthrough appears to satisfy a two-year stalemate between opponents of the project who pressed for private ownership/development and Civic Auditorium supporters who wish to see the historic building renovated and re-opened as a cultural center.”
The Civic and other properties have been the subject of several closed-session common council meetings in recent months, involving the possible sale and development of the parcel adjacent to the Civic on the corner. The city attorney was recently directed to work with the, at the time, unnamed developer to make a deal on the corner property, bringing it off public tax rolls, along with the Civic property.
“This is a very good day,” said Bill Ties, FCA president. “We have a successful, reputable property developer aboard who sees the unique potential to develop the empty lot and work closely with partners in the nonprofit sector to fulfill the plan to save the Civic and get it reopened as soon as possible.”
Ties did not expand on the contingencies of other development plans, and admitted that “many details are unknown,” but the FCA did reveal some background on the likely new owner, Craig Cohen, whom they said is ”a St. Paul-based developer with many projects in his portfolio including the Keg & Case on West 7th in St. Paul.”
The Keg & Case development on West 7th Street in St. Paul is unique in that it combines multiple restaurants and merchants in a huge, open-air warehouse complex, in a revitalized and restored 1855 Schmidt brewery building, which has proved quite popular as both a food, brewery and merchandise venue.
The FCA release did say that Cohen “is excited about coming to St. Croix Falls and becoming part of reviving the historic downtown.”
Efforts to reach Cohen before press time were unsuccessful, although in his company bio, it is noted how he worked extensively with the city and local historic restoration groups when they undertook the Keg & Case project, which would also seem to bode well for the Civic, which has a notable historic pedigree and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The on-again, off-again plans for Civic rehabilitation have been stalled and restarted repeatedly for several years now, after efforts by the FCA and others to keep the building public and renovate it, with plans to reopen as a multiroom event rental and lease-worthy performance venue, based, in part, on utilizing approximately $2.6 million in tax increment from the TIF district No. 1, in plans and proposals first crafted half a decade ago.
The use of the tax increment had been the recent subject of legal opinions, meetings and review, with the recalled St. Croix Falls Joint Review Board denying the long-planned efforts to utilize the increment in the rehab, hinging their decision on the building’s city ownership on land off the tax rolls, with assurances of a sort of future amortized tax collections as critical for the increment being eligible for the Civic project.
Recent efforts to use private donations and grants to build an expansion to add modern facilities and an elevator have stalled, restarted, renewed, and then seemingly were dead with that latest JRB decision, which appeared to deny hopes of utilizing the available tax increment originally earmarked for the Civic project as proposed for the since-amended boutique hotel development project, which was later scuttled by the developer.
It is also hoped that with the Civic deal, the door to several hundred thousand dollars in grants, pledges and donations, could be used toward the theater renovation and upgrades, although it admittedly hinges in part on what Cohen has in mind for the vacant corner parcel, and whether they want to “join” any new construction with the Civic, as a way to save on infrastructure costs like elevators, storage, rest rooms, and heating/ventilation and air conditioning. That shared utilities and facilitates concept was part of the original boutique hotel concept and is a way to offset some of the development costs of whatever is constructed on the corner parcel.
y alderperson Kirk Anderson and seconded by Jeff Virchow, with the two other council persons both voting in favor of the deal.
The vote to approve the offer to purchase was made by alderperson Kirk Anderson and seconded by Jeff Virchow, with the two other council persons both voting in favor of the deal.
Look to the Leader to update the preliminary details of the Civic deal and possible future plans when they become public.
SCF Council leans toward police expansion
New K9 squad car and possible school-city liaison officer
ST. CROIX FALLS – The St. Croix Falls Common Council approved action leaning toward two important expansions of their police force at their most recent meeting, Monday, March 9.
One action was approval of pursuing a so-called COPS grant for three years, aiding in expansion of the police force with a liaison officer program at the school district.
The other council action was to allow the police chief to research and buy a canine-capable squad vehicle, signaling final support for a canine officer program in the city, led entirely by volunteer donations, grants and in-kind matches and services, with a goal of no added cost to the city.
That council approval assures that when they finally receive a canine officer, the department has a vehicle for its future four-legged officer, now that the canine program that appears to be coming to fruition and is nearly ready to go dog shopping.
According to Chief Erin Murphy, the COPS grant would cover up to $125,000 of the cost of the liaison program for three years, with the school district and city splitting the remainder of the cost and paying for things like offices, uniforms and a squad car.
“We can use our old, retired squad car for an officer,” Murphy said, noting that they kept a former Ford Taurus squad car from the past. “It didn’t have much value, that way there’s no cost to us for another squad.”
Murphy said the liaison officer would spend his/her time at the school district when school is open, and would supplement the city squad in the summers and when school is not in session.
”We would need to add an officer, with this being an assignment, generally for two-to three years rotation,” Murphy added. “They would supplement our work load, in our busiest months (over the summer).”
Murphy said there was no assurance they receive the grant, but they will know this summer if approved, and could implement the program next year, working with the school district.
“If we’re awarded, it would likely be a 2021 topic,” Murphy said.
The council voted unanimously in favor of the grant application, which may dramatically expand the city’s police department if approved, and would pay the bulk of the program for three years, with the city and school district sharing the cost for the fourth year, and able to decide if they want to continue the program for a fifth or subsequent years.
Separate from the school liaison issue was a proposal to allow Chief Murphy to purchase a new or used squad car/truck/SUV, outfitted for long-term canine use, but also as a squad car for the department.
The vehicle is the final missing cog in preparation for the long-discussed canine program, which the department has been fundraising for a year now, with Murphy saying they have reached over 75% of the their goal, to fully fund the canine program.
He said the dog trainer has agreed to donate a portion of the training costs of a dog, which is a savings of $7,000-$8,000, and a local veterinarian has donated food and medical service, save for emergency services.
a dual purpose dog, used for narcotics detection and search and rescue operations.
Murphy said the canine they obtain and have trained will be a dual purpose dog, used for narcotics detection and search and rescue operations.
“I’m a big fan of this program, but is it sustainable?” Alderperson Jeff Virchow asked, with Murphy stating that the funds they have raised are meant to answer that issue.
“We raised the fund to sustain the animal for its full working life here, of about six to seven years,” Murphy assured.
The only thing missing other than a dog is a vehicle to keep the animal during service times, which the council approved Murphy purchasing. The vehicle they purchase will also be usable as a general purpose squad, and he said they are hoping to get in on training his spring, and may be close to looking for a dog.
“We only started this program a year ago,” Murphy said on the successful canine program fundraising efforts and sustainability. “I’m humbled by this community … I see raising funds over six years as very doable.”
In other council action
— The council considered votes on several controversial issues, including a so-called ‘zero tolerance policy,’ which they approved after some tweaking, eliminating any reference to removal or discipline, but essentially remaining elected and appointed officials of public decorum.
The measure was first proposed several weeks ago, and was scrutinized slightly on Monday, including whether to include a paragraph about penalties or removal from office.
Mayor Arnie Carlson was adamant against the measure, calling it a blatant assault on the First Amendment.
“To punish people for certain behavior, as judge jury and hangman,” Carlson said, implying that some people “need to act their age.”
The ‘hangman’ reference rang ironic, since one of the items that brought the proposal on was an incident several weeks ago where a St. Croix Falls Plan Commission member gave small, handmade nooses to each alderperson, about a decision to dissolve the Community Development Authority.
Several alderpersons had their own qualms about portions of the proposal, but the crux of the policy, noting the need for decorum and appropriate behavior, was in general agreement.
“This is probably long overdue for this community,” sponsor Jeff Virchow stated. “It’s about standards of community conduct, that’s all.”
Virchow said the reason he crafted the policy was simple.
“Residents should feel safe at these meetings, we have a right not to hear (expletives) or get nooses,” Virchow added, stating that when those things occurred, he was shocked. “The gavel never came out, it was silence.”
Alderperson Warren White noted that may communities have similar codes of conduct, and often advertise it with a sign or plaque.
“It’s not bad to raise the consciousness of these things,” White said with a nod.
City attorney Paul Mahler agreed that such a code is common,” so people act like adults,” but he assured the council that removal of an appointed official for his or her behavior is already among their powers.
White agreed that it wasn’t bad to bring this up when someone is sworn-in, and said he had no problem with the language.
“I don’t think this is all that toxic,” White said.
Alderperson Kirk Anderson presented a motion to approve the policy, minus several references to penalties or removal from office.
Alderperson Craig Lien said that most employers have such a conduct policy and even sports teams have general policies of conduct.
“There are certain levels of expectation if you serve in that roll (of government),” Lien added. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have.”
The council after unanimously approved the code of conduct policy, minus the references to penalties.
The council debated whether to terminate their Tax Increment District No. 1 or extend it for another year to gain another $1.2-million in increment to invest in affordable housing, meaning the TID would run until March 2021, instead of closing for good this March 22, after 27 years.
The extension is one of the only ways to legally extend a TID, without approval by the Joint Review Board, with the increment dedicated to be spent on at least 75% toward affordable housing.
That threshold was not clarified, but would include administration costs for a variety of possible investments in development or infrastructure to bring housing costs down, hopefully to an affordable level, which government guidelines suggest are where your housing costs are less than 30% of household income, a figure that is way out of skew locally, and especially in St. Croix Falls.
“That was one of the things the (county housing study) pointed out, how St. Croix Falls needs this more than anywhere,” White said.
While the affordable housing extension garnered general support from the council, the lack of any real plan to implement such an effort meant they split on the vote to approve, meaning that it fell to Mayor Carlson to decide the issue, and he chose to deny the extension, meaning the TID will close for good in just over a week.
New interim city administrator Joel West was introduced to the gallery, and contributed to several of the conversations and decision, in spite of being on the job for just one week.
“We’ll put him to very good use,” Carlson said as he welcomed him to the job.
Luck school referendum - questions asked by public
LUCK — The April ballot for residents of the Luck School District will include a question asking whether voters support a $9.85 million referendum project for maintenance, updates and an addition to the school.
About 35 people attended an informational meeting Thursday evening, March 5, to learn about the project and ask questions. Superintendent Cory Hinkel began the presentation by outlining the scope of and rationale for the project.
He briefly reviewed the timeline that brought the school board to approval of the April 7 referendum questions, starting with needs assessment of the facility in 2018. In an April 2019 referendum vote, an $8.5 million school improvement plan failed to pass by a vote of 431 to 402.
The needs, however, are still there, said Hinkel.
Included as major components of the project are $520,000 for exterior maintenance of the building, sidewalks, parking lot and track, and $563,000 for improvements to the family and consumer education, technical education and metal shops areas. There is also $807,000 for classroom updates in the science rooms, computer lab and library, as well as flooring, shelving, desks and seating in a number of classrooms.
Another $660,000 is slated for renovating the bathrooms to meet ADA requirements and a unisex rest room, and $521,000 for replacing doors and flooring.
Bigger ticket items consist of $1.03 million for renovations and updates to the locker rooms, weight room and elementary gymnasium. Another $1.02 million is included to turn the elementary gym into an auditorium with the flexibility to still be used for physical education and other purposes.
The largest item, however, is a proposed $4.22 million gymnasium addition, with a small commons area and adjacent rest rooms. This addition could be securely blocked off from the rest of the school, allowing use when the school is closed while preventing visitors access to the rest of the building.
Also included is just over $500,000 for contingencies such as unexpected asbestos or other unanticipated issues.
Hinkel also reported on an application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency that, if successful, would provide $2 million of $3.4 million needed for a storm shelter addition.
It would be built to withstand an F-5 tornado with winds up to 250 mph, and would double as space for the child care program. Constructed between the road and the proposed gym addition off the south end of the building, the shelter would also house new locker rooms and a weight room, freeing up some of the referendum funds slated to renovate those areas. A total of five classrooms would be freed up for other uses.
The application has been submitted to FEMA, Hinkel said, and the school will be notified in July as to whether it is awarded the grant.
Following Hinkel’s presentation on the FEMA grant possibility, a member of the audience questioned whether it would be better to wait with the referendum until the district knows if it will receive the grant since the grant would at least affect the locker rooms and weight rooms.
Hinkel explained that the referendum vote would then need to wait until November, pushing back the timeline for the needed work and likely increasing costs. He also said that, if the district is successful in getting the grant, some of the scope of work could change for the referendum project.
Another issue of concern for at least two of the residents present is the proposed construction of a new gymnasium. Given the fact that local bank owner and entrepreneur Dennis Frandsen is paying tuition at technical colleges for both 2019 and 2020 graduates, the two residents felt more of the referendum funding should go toward technical education rather than a new gym.
“I’m really disappointed by the amount of money being spent on gymnasiums,” said one resident. He added that he knows the gym isn’t used strictly for basketball, but the fact that many students don’t go to four-year colleges combined with the need for people in the trades means that additional funds for the tech ed program make more sense.
Another resident noted that graduates are not staying in the area, in part, because of a lack of housing, but also because of a lack of training in the manufacturing jobs available here.
Hinkel explained that 27 of the 30 2019 graduates took advantage of the Frandsen scholarship and that new equipment is being added regularly to the tech ed department.
However, he added, the shop and tech ed area already have space and infrastructure, so funds are not needed for that. The gymnasium is new construction so is more expensive.
School board President Jake Jensen added that a great deal of work has been done in the tech ed department recently, and the program offers many opportunities. The $562,000 included in the referendum will make a big difference, he said.
“It’s a good space,” said Hinkel. “We have the blueprint for a wonderful shop there.” What’s needed, he said, is additional equipment.
As discussion shifted back to the new gymnasium space, former superintendent and current school board member Rick Palmer pointed out that the new facility allows the elementary gym to be remodeled into an auditorium.
“I don’t think many people in this room can deny the fact and our performing arts has performed in substandard areas for years,” he said.
“Putting a million into renovating our old gym into an auditorium that our kids can really benefit from makes us need that new gym space.
Saying that for years he has felt bad about how performing arts students have been “shortchanged,” Palmer added, “I really support the auditorium renovation, and along with that comes the need for gym space.”
The school is being used differently now than it was 30 years ago when he was in school, said Jensen, and every space is in use daily by the school and the community.
Wrapping up the meeting, Hinkel encouraged everyone to get out and vote Tuesday, April 7. Information can be found on the Unity School website.
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