Ostrander Council reviews Construction work, lowers levy

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE Bridge replacement work on County Road 1 north of Ostrander has redirected traffic around the bridge to a detour that brings motorists into town from the east on County 3.
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

Getting to Ostrander on County State Aid Highway (CSAH) 1 may be difficult due to a bridge replacement project just a mile north of town, but slowed or detoured traffic doesn’t mean that life has come to a halt there. 

In fact, the City Council kept busy during the Sept. 4 meeting dealing with the end of street improvements, water quality issues and planning ahead to late fall for the start of winter plowing. 

Levy to decrease

City clerk Wendy Brincks outlined the city’s preliminary budget for 2020, noting that if the proposed budget is approved, the highest amount that the council could certify would be $191,700, a decrease from the amount of $192,291 officially approved for 2019.  She reminded the councilors – Stephanie Start, Dan Hellerud, D.J. Start and Vernon Thompson – that they can choose only to lower the amount once they hold their annual budget meeting in December to make the levy final. 

The council voted to approve the preliminary budget as presented.

Construction payments

Brincks also told the council that A-1 Excavating has yet to handle the punch list items for street project completion following the overhaul of the town’s water infrastructure and the replacement of the main street surface, which runs concurrent with CSAH 1.  Fillmore County paid for some of the work done to upgrade CSAH 1, but the city had other work taken care of while street constructors were available. 

“They haven’t touched the punch list yet,” she said. “We have pipe issues and water pooling at intersections, failing pipes already put in.  It’s not just grass that doesn’t look green, because that’s a minor cosmetic thing. Their pay estimate is $27,418.71.  Wapasha – I assume that we’ll be seeing their final pay request coming in.  We are retaining a percentage, as they say the issue is they’re waiting on Croell Ready Mix.” 

The council chose to approve payment to A-1.    

Water quality issue

Residents Nate and Megan Cole had presented their water quality concerns to the council’s attention during the July meeting, as they have encountered vile odors in the water coming into their home from their faucets and do not feel that they can safely use the water for bathing or cooking.  Megan Cole stated that she feels that she cannot wash her face with the city water because it doesn’t smell right. 

“As soon as we stop flushing at our house, it’s unbearable,” she told the council.

City maintenance supervisor Jeff Tart — who has unrelatedly announced his resignation to the council — has been working with PeopleService over the past month to flush hydrants to find the source of the supposed water contamination, following the prescribed actions for hydrant flushing laid out for PeopleService by the state.  He shared that PeopleService monitors its operators by using global positioning systems (GPS) to track where the operators have parked the company’s trucks, so if there is any question about how well the protocol has been followed, PeopleService would have records. 

The discussion turned toward previous city practices and how the hydrants hadn’t been flushed on a regular schedule, meaning that there were some that had gotten less attention in the past, but Tart remarked that he had some concerns about the hydrants on Robert and Trinity streets at this point in time and has focused on how to properly clear those by letting them run up to 20 minutes at a time without causing low water pressure elsewhere. 

Nate Cole pointed out that he and Megan feel they are two of many on their street or block who have experienced poor water quality, but that they are the only ones to come forward with a complaint because their neighbors feel that there is nothing that can or will be done about it.  He added that one of their neighbors has completely stopped drinking city water and buys bottled water for cooking and drinking.  As for a solution, he said, “The only solution I can think of is to dig from our house to Robert Street.” 

Brincks cautioned against doing that. “That will open a whole new can of worms and issues.  We can try flushing Trinity Street, and you have Jeff’s number and Stephanie’s number, if you need it.” 

She suggested that holding a special meeting, if necessary, might be helpful because if the matter is placed on the October meeting agenda, that leaves another month’s time before further conversation, and winter is soon arriving.

Snow plowing

Brincks brought up the city’s plowing plans for the 2019-2020 winter, explaining to the councilors that if the city were to abandon the sidewalks, that would mean the city would not have to clean them, but residents would be responsible for doing so. 

“This is for bidding for snow removal by the lift station and the fire hydrants, and this would be for an hourly rate,” Brincks said. “Their insurance would cover it.  I talked to (city attorney) Jennifer Gumbel about snow removal and liability, and she said that it’s different because we’re a city.  If we’re hiring, they can do it after a certain amount of snowfall, but if it’s the city maintenance man, we don’t take on the responsibility.  At all costs, we can make sure it’s safe, but we don’t take on the liability. 

“The sidewalks…we can abandon them and as a city say, ‘We don’t have to clean it…we cannot take the liability away from the homeowners.  We could encourage the citizens to keep their sidewalks clear until it gets so deep that nobody’s shoveling.  The ordinance states that homeowners are responsible for their own sidewalk.  We can say we’re not going to enforce that, but it is in the ordinance that it’s the homeowners’ responsibility to keep it clean.” 

Someone questioned whether clearing fire hydrants is the city’s responsibility, and Brincks replied that while it is included in the ordinance that residents clear around the hydrants, neighboring cities have taken the job on to assist the fire departments when a call occurs. 

She spoke briefly about last winter’s February blizzard that shut down most of southern Minnesota, stating that while Ostrander hired O’Connell Excavating to remove the nearly two feet of snow from downtown, if absolutely necessary, Fillmore County will handle the removal.  “If they can’t, it’s on us to take care of it,” she said.

Councilors voted to hire to have snow removed this winter, eliminating the specification in the bidding that called for at least six inches of snow before the contractor could do the work.               

Fire truck replacement

Ostrander Fire Chief Dustin Johnson informed the council that there had been no fire calls within the past month or more and that he felt that that will continue to be the case as fall arrives and people start heating their homes because fewer people use wood-fueled heaters to warm their abodes. 

When Johnson asked about a request for him to attend the meeting, Brincks cited that the council had indeed asked for his presence, as budgeting meetings had garnered the department an increased capital fund that could be used to purchase a replacement truck for the town’s 1987 fire truck. 

Johnson showed appreciation for the increased funding, but he stated that the fire department has had difficulty locating a used truck for sale locally and that finding one online in another state causes him apprehension.

“We’re always looking, we’re currently looking,” he said. “If we buy a truck for $40,000 to $50,000, that sounds like a lot of money, but all the trucks are in other states…Pennsylvania, Texas.  If we buy a truck for $40,000 to $50,000, that scares me because we’d be buying it sight unseen. I don’t want to buy a truck that’s only five years newer than the one we have.” 

Brincks related that the department has a limit of $80,000 and that any additional equipment would have to be purchased through proceeds from department fundraising efforts. 

Johnson said, “We just had our pork chop dinner.” 

Hellerud inquired, “Are there any departments in the area that are buying new or trading in?” 

Johnson replied that there are some in the area but none that have trucks that fit Ostrander’s needs.  “The word’s out, but if you find one, let me know,” he said.

Brincks assured Johnson that if the department were to locate a truck for sale, funds from the city are immediately available, though the chief would have to check with rural fire board members to ascertain whether the fire board is ready to provide funding as well.   

In one other matter, the council chose to reschedule its November regular meeting for Tuesday, Nov. 12, due to the usual first-Tuesday date being Tuesday, Nov. 5, when an election is set to be held.