Snow-covered school buses pulled into the driveway of the Saunders U-Cut Tree Farm on Thursday, and Falls Elementary students excitedly poured out, ready to hunt for the perfect Christmas tree.
Teachers Kimberley McDonald, Katherine Winkel and Luke Zika led their fourth-graders through the snowy rows of trees, students carefully inspecting the branches to find a suitable fit for their classrooms.
“Don’t choose a tree that’s taller than your teacher,” Winkel reminded her class as some students started to gravitate toward eight-foot-tall trees.
Each student was given the opportunity to help cut down the tree, and some found themselves surprised at how difficult it was to use a handsaw.
After tough decisions were made, each class made it back with the ‘perfect tree.’
“What a perfect day for this,” McDonald noted after thanking the Saunders and heading back to school.
Gary and Pam Saunders invite FES fourth graders to their tree farm every year to pick out their classroom trees. Fifth graders from Indus will also visit the tree farm on Friday.
Decisions and deadlines are on the horizon for the future of a potential multi-family housing unit in International Falls.
Officials helping spearhead a project to transform the Alexander Baker School building into affordable housing units told The Journal in November the next step is if KOOTASCA Community Action will step into the role of a primary developer.
“The (KOOTASCA) board meets Dec. 12 to consider the project's feasibility and whether we'd have a role in the final development,” said Isaac Meyer, KOOTASCA planning and development director. "It's a lot for our board to weigh, but it's really exciting and promising.”
A lot of behind-the-scenes work has been done over the last several years on the adaptive reuse of the vacant, historic building. The project has gained support from Minnesota Housing Partnership, an organization that works with communities to research housing needs and develop projects.
“They exist to increase the capacity of housing in our community with particular attention to building capacity,” Meyer said of the organization. "They want to see our area fix some of its housing problems, but also build local capacity."
Ward Merrill, executive director of Backus Community Center, said originally, the plan for the three-story AB building was to bring KOOTASCA’s anti-poverty programming, community services and Head Start classrooms to the first floor and affordable housing to the second and third floors. Now, however, all three floors will be used for housing if the project moves forward.
“We're looking to maximize all three floors for housing,” he said. "It's important for us to bring the building back to use, but also to bring it back to use as an affordable housing project. It meets the need of the adaptive reuse of the building and the housing in this area. That was well documented in the (local) housing study released earlier this year."
The study was funded by the Koochiching County Housing Collaborative, a group made up of motivated community members and officials which meets regularly to analyze the housing shortage. Merrill said without the study, the AB project would have likely lost momentum early on.
"We needed that housing study and we needed it to support the adaptive reuse of the AB building," he said.
Merrill and Meyer said 2019 was a big year for the AB project and everyone involved.
Should the KOOTASCA Board approve the project, the next biggest deadline would be in June when an application to Minnesota Housing for housing tax credits is due.
“That's a key deadline looming ahead of us,” Merrill said. “In the meantime, there's a lot of other pieces that have to come together.”
After submitting the application early next summer, the group will find out if it was successful in November.
“If we're awarded (funding), we'll be putting the entire project into place,” Meyer said. "Once a project is funded, the rate of success is almost essentially 100 percent."
And while the men are optimistic about the project, they acknowledged it might not get funded the first time around.
“It's hard to say if we'll get funded the first time,” Meyer said. “We've got a lot of work to do until we get that application in. There are a lot of decisions to be made.”
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The Koochiching Development Authority Board agreed to allocate $20,000 in support of Rainy River Community College’s nursing program for the 2020 school year.
Rainy River Community College Provost Roxanne Kelly and RRCC Nursing Instructor and Healthcare Coordinator Donita Ettestad met with the board Tuesday to discuss the future of the program.
Kelly, who has served as provost for nearly three years, said she's following up on a letter sent in August for continued funding from its partners in a Healthcare Initiative.
The initiative has been funded for the years 2017, 2018 and 2019 by International Falls, Koochiching Development Authority, Essentia, and Rainy Lake Medical Center, which have contributed $20,000 each for the three years. The initial year was also funded by a $90,000 United States Department of Agriculture grant and $6,500 from Good Samaritan Society.
The partnership came together after discussions started locally in 2015 about the need to solve a nurse shortage in the larger Borderland community while at the same time meeting the needs of students seeking nursing degrees in International Falls. In addition to the challenge was the loss in 2012 of RRCC’s ability to offer a full-fledged nursing program. As a result, RRCC partnered with Itasca Community College, which delivers the program to the local campus.
Kelly said Tuesday the program will "hit red" next year without partner support.
She said International Falls and Rainy Lake Medical Center have funding budgeted for 2020 that will help offset the cost of the program.
"We can't lose this program," she said. “It's too important to the community and too important to the partners. We will find a way to have this program, no matter what. That's me saying that. I don't know what would happen in the future. I am hoping that it would stay."
Ettestad said as of June, 25 nurses over the last three years have graduated from the program. Those numbers represent "unduplicated" students, meaning they have not graduated from the licensed practical nurse program and entered the registered nurse program.
Of the 25 graduates, she said five have relocated from the community.
"So, 20 nurses are employed in our community as a result of the partner support," she said.
The RN and LPN programs are full this fall with 10 students each, and she expected the same situation next year.
A need in the community remains, she said, adding she knows of at least three job openings - some due to retirements - in the community.
Board members voiced support, but said they only felt comfortable providing money for the 2020 school year, suggesting the KDA Board revisit the funding next year.
Board members Brian McBride and Wade Pavleck said they know that a single year of funding makes planning difficult, but don't feel comfortable committing future boards, noting that an election may bring different members.
"You can't argue with the success of the program," McBride said, calling the program the flagship of the college.
Board member Jason Sjoblom also supported the program. "We want to keep it and in the future come up with firmer, long-term funding," he said.
The board also approved an agreements with the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation agency to accept its annual payment, which this year is $170,000 and is used for economic development.
Later Tuesday, the Koochiching County Board heard little comment about the proposed 2020 levy and budget, but heard lots of concern about huge increases in some property owners' individual property valuations, causing their individual taxes to increase a great deal.
The board proposes to levy $4.6 million from property owners to support a $28.7 million budget. The levy represents a 3 percent increase from last year, and will collect $134,000 in new money.
The board will take action on adoption of a final levy and budget when it meets Dec. 17.
To balance a $2.3 million deficit in revenue, several departments will use reserve funds, county Administrative Director Jenny Herman said.
The county saw a 1.66 percent increase in the tax rate, but did not gain in tax capacity this year, she said.
Historically, the county has been able to gain in its fund reserve because revenues exceeded expenditures. However, she said, spikes in revenue in 2017 and 2018 were due to bond sales for the Island View Sewer Project and not all the money has been spent because the project is not yet complete.
The largest part of the county's budget expenditures are wages and benefits, and a part of the increase in the 2020 budget is due to the 2.5 percent cost of living increase to employee salaries and benefits, Herman said.
In addition, she said capital expenditures have increased.
She noted how the county's budget is spread:
"Overall, I think the county department directors and county board worked pretty hard to make sure this balances," Herman said Tuesday. "A budget is fluid and is subject to change, and is something we watch very carefully by doing quarterly budget reports and monitoring fund balances on a monthly basis."
Meanwhile, county Board Chair McBride reminded residents that the board is aware that some properties have seen huge tax increases because valuations have been updated.
McBride reiterated that people must come to the county Assessors Office in May and June when the yellow valuation/property classification notices are sent out to discuss their individual situations.
"Other than the levy, there's nothing we can change tonight," he said.
Property owners may sometimes confuse the meetings conducted in December of each year by the county, cities and school districts with the Board of Equalization meetings held in June.
The December meetings are hearings required by various governments to present the next year’s budget and tax levy to the public and are limited to discussion about the budget and tax levy. Officials may only adjust the budget and levy if deemed appropriate after receiving public comment through the hearing process.
While the market value and classification assessment, and budget and tax levy, processes together determine what a property owner will pay in taxes, they are separate processes and authorities.
A property owner seeking relief through valuation/property classification must discuss their issue with the assessor and/or attend a June Board of Equalization meeting; a property owner seeking relief by its taxing authorities must attend the budget/levy hearings in December.
The board also Tuesday: