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Top 10 of 2011: Failed school vote is top story

December 27, 2011
Sentinel Staff , Fairmont Sentinel

FAIRMONT - Fairmont Area Schools' failed referendum and the pending budget cuts that will result has been selected the top local news story of 2011 by Sentinel staff.

Other stories in the Top 10 include a Martin County commissioner's resignation, a sharing agreement among three northern Iowa schools and the Fairmont football team's impressive run to the state championship game.

What follows are the Top 10 local news stories, as voted on by Sentinel staff:

Article Photos

A look at the work taking place on the city of Fairmont’s new water plant at the former site of William Budd Elementary School. Construction of the water plant was chosen as the No. 2 local news story of 2011 by Sentinel staff.

1. In November, Fairmont Area Schools' referendum to increase its operating levy failed by a 2-1 margin.

The district was hoping to revoke a $500 per pupil unit levy set to expire in 2013 and replace it with a $1,250 per pupil unit levy good for the next 10 years. A second question asked voters to approve an additional $150 for technology and tuck-pointing work at the high school.

The failure of the referendum leaves the $500 per pupil unit levy in place, with another referendum likely in November 2012.

The district is in the process of formulating its budget for 2012-2013. According to Superintendent Joe Brown, the school needs to find ways to reduce the budget by $500,000 per year for three years in an attempt to avoid statutory operating debt in fiscal year 2015.

2. The city of Fairmont issued a bond of $28 million this year for construction of a new water treatment facility.

Work on the project originally was slated to begin as soon as school let out and William Budd School could be demolished. The state government shutdown delayed progress on the project, however. Not until August was the elementary school razed to make way for the new plant.

The work drew a crowd of onlookers, many nostalgic about the history of the school and others merely curious about the process.

Excavation of the site began in the fall, with workers digging a 30-foot hole and pouring a concrete base for the area that will eventually house clean, treated water.

Construction is continuing throughout the winter.

3. In late January, charges were filed against then-County Commissioner Gerald Boler for seven counts of theft and one count of financial transaction card fraud. Boler was accused of receiving double reimbursements from the county and from non-profit organizations for conferences he attended. Boler's defense claimed it was not Boler's intent to receive double reimbursements, but simply sloppy bookkeeping on his part.

Following the charges, the other Martin County commissioners censured Boler and asked him to resign. Boler refused.

In September, Boler made an Alford plea on one of the theft charges and resigned from the commission.

A primary vote on four candidates wanting to fill the position was held Dec. 20. A vote between top candidates Elliot Belgard and Bob Toland will be held Feb. 14.

4. There's a bit of a switcheroo going on with Fairmont businesses right now. The VFW sold its home of 70-some years to Bank Midwest and moved to a new site on Albion Avenue that was formerly Kak's Restaurant.

The city approved tax-increment financing worth $600,000 for the bank to construct a new building in place of the old VFW. When the project is complete, the bank will vacate its current location on Downtown Plaza, which has been purchased by Fairmont Farmers Mutual Insurance Company.

Demolition of the VFW building began this summer, but the project hit a snag when the excavator found creosote-treated wood buried underground. The bank applied for a grant through the state to help pay for an investigation to find all the wood. Removing it could cost several hundred thousand dollars.

5. Despite some old rivalries and rocky negotiations, the three northern Iowa school districts of Armstrong-Ringsted, North Kossuth and Sentral schools agreed this year to try whole-grade sharing.

The idea of the three districts joining together has been discussed for years, but an educational consultant's study was publicly released in May to show the most viable way for the districts to share. However, it left a sticking point that was argued throughout the summer. In the plan, North Kossuth was allowed to keep its elementary students and host the middle school, while Sentral only hosted its own and Armstrong-Ringsted's K-4 elementary students.

For a short while in November, it looked like only Sentral and Armstrong-Ringsted would work together, but an agreement also including North Kossuth was finally reached. Sentral will now host grades K-5, and will begin consolidating with Armstrong-Ringsted district within two to three years.

6. Two people were killed in the tiny town of Imogene in an act of domestic violence on June 2.

Linda K. Norman, 51, and her ex-boyfriend Curtis L. Larson, 50, were found dead in a van parked by the Our Place bar, Norman's place of employment. Following an investigation, it was determined the deaths were a murder-suicide, and that Larson killed Norman before turning the gun on himself.

The incident highlighted the ongoing problem of domestic abuse. On Oct. 6, one of Norman's sons, Bradey Schmidt, spoke at a domestic abuse awareness ceremony about his mother and released a dove in her honor.

7. When Dean Vereide resigned as Blue Earth police chief in early May, it set off a contentious debate that is ongoing. The City Council proposed divergent ways to handle Vereide's departure: Hire a new chief and keep the city police force, or disband the city police force and partner with the city of Winnebago or the Faribault County Sheriff's Office.

In October, the council voted to hire a new chief and began the process of seeking and interviewing candidates. In November, the panel that interviewed four candidates for the job recommended that none of them be hired.

With the year coming to a close, Mayor Rob Hammond decided to exercise his ability to appoint a police chief, as stated in the City Charter.

Hammond invited the three police officers already on the force to apply for the job of chief. The mayor will make a recommendation to the council, which will vote to accept or reject his nominee.

8. When the Prairieland waste facility reached its 20th anniversary and paid off its bonds at the start of 2011, the county-owned plant reached a crossroads. Its original concept of turning trash into compost has not been successful. After some debate, the county boards of Faribault and Martin County agreed to have Prairieland pursue a contract with Xcel Energy to convert Prairieland's product to refuse-derived fuel, and have all of its product delivered to the Wilmarth Power Plant in Mankato to be burned and made into electricity.

The contract with Xcel was made official in November, and the plant is now converting to making RDF and phasing out the compost portion of its operations.

9. In March, the city of Fairmont announced it was ready to pay off its new liquor store - several years ahead of projections.

Built in 2009 for $1.8 million - including the property purchased off Highway 15 in Center Creek Commons - the store was financed internally. Since moving from its crowded, dingy site on Park Street, revenue has increased nearly 25 percent. For 2011, staff expected the store to gross $3.1 million to $3.3 million.

Money from the liquor store has typically been put aside for special projects, like building the aquatic park and renovating the old school building now known as Southern Minnesota Educational Campus.

This summer, the council discussed saving only half of the $400,000 the store averages in revenue for future use. The remaining $65,000 would go to annual costs to operate the SMEC building, and $135,000 could go toward projects of the council's choice. The council talked about using the money for parks and trails updates, demolishing or fixing up old buildings, economic development, a citywide cleanup day, and airport improvements.

10. The Fairmont Area High School football team went on a year-end winning streak this fall that took it all the way to the Class 3A championship game at the Metrodome. Cardinal fans and the community as a whole got on board with the team for the exciting ride.

St. Croix Lutheran edged the Cardinals in the championship, 34-32, with the Cardinals failing on a 2-point conversion as the game drew to a close.

The Cardinals weren't the only football team to offer some thrills this fall. The Armstrong-Ringsted Mustangs advanced to the Iowa state semifinals in eight-man football. The Mustangs were the two-time defending state champ, and had been in the championship game four years in a row.

Last but not least, the Blue Earth Area Bucs advanced to the Minnesota Class 2A state quarterfinals before falling to Waterville-Elysian-Morristown.



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