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Council drops levy increase from 6 to 1.7 percent; Briggs to vote no, citing fairness of cuts
  • Updated

International Falls City Council Monday proposed to collect 1.7 percent more in property taxes in 2021 than the city did this year in property taxes, dropping a preliminary proposal to increase the levy 6 percent.

At a 1.7 percent increase, the proposed levy would collect $2.98 million in property taxes, a $49,828 increase over the 2020 levy, to support a $17.8 million budget in 2021.

The council is scheduled to adopt its final budget and levy Dec. 21, after taking into consideration the public comment it received.

The proposed budget includes a return to 2020 funding levels for Backus Community Center, at $55,000, and the Koochiching Museums, at $30,000.

Councilor Brian Briggs said he would vote no to the budget as proposed Monday, citing the additional funding now proposed for Backus and the museums.

"During the pandemic, we ought to be holding (the tax levy) to zero," Briggs told the council. "Everyone is hurting, everyone has to take a cut in this. A lot of businesses in town are hurting."

Meanwhile, the proposal, leaves in place a $30,000 cut to the contract the city has with International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, from $42,474 in 2020 to $12,474 in 2021, said Mayor Harley Droba. City Administrator Ken Anderson said a new contract will be negotiated with the chamber for 2021.

International Falls received $462,000 in federal CARES Act, which was used to offset some expenses, improvements to secure facilities, and other needs caused by the pandemic, noted Anderson, that did not have to be funded with other money.

Droba said the budget was the most difficult of the previous six he has helped develop for the city, adding the final proposal was a compromise on all parts.

Following a presentation highlighting the changes from the preliminary 2021 budget and levy by Droba and Anderson, Julie Melstrom, former city councilor, voiced disappointment that the levy would be raised more than what it was set at in 2020.

She asked questions about the Falls International Airport, of which the city co-owns and funds with Koochiching County. The city serves as the fiscal agent, causing it to upfront money before it is reimbursed from other sources.

Melstrom urged the council to ask the residents if they want to chip in toward the airport funding.

But Briggs reminded Melstrom that without the airport, the CEO of the local paper mill - the city's largest employer - has said the paper mill would not likely operate here.

In addition, he said the airport is largely funded by state and federal sources, adding that $2 million from the city and county has leveraged $39 million from other sources for airport update projects that he said should last for the next 20-30 years.

In a normal year, he said the airport brings outside money into the community as a result of the daily use from April to October by 10 to 20 private and commercial planes, which stop here to refuel and check into the United States.

Highlights

The changes since the preliminary budget and levy were adopted in September came much as a result of a Dec. 3 committee meeting, which brought the following actions to reduce the proposed levy from a 6 percent increase over collections in 2020 to a 1.7 percent increase:

  • Reduced revenue needed by $175,000 from the levy for the city share as a result of the federal CARES Act money available through the FAA to fund maintenance and operations costs at the Airport.
  • Retained $14,828 to reduce the reserve funds needed to balance the budget and/or to potentially use for contract services provided through the International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce - yet to be determined.
  • Removed $10,000 in costs from the general fund and Police Department budget and moved to appropriations, based upon the decision by Police Chief Rich Mastin to not implement body-worn cameras for officers in 2021.
  • Appropriated $20,000 to the Rainy River Community College for the Health Care Initiative to train nurses and other health care professionals to be paid in 2020 from the International Falls Economic Development Authority Fund 208, and thereby reducing expenditures for the city in 2020, and reducing the EDA cash balance.

Budget notes

The total sales and use tax proceeds received in 2020 through Nov. 10 total $842,015, reports Anderson. This exceeds the five-year historical average; therefore, additional money should will be available to fund public improvement projects or prepay the debt service on bonds.

The Ambulance Service is intended to be a self-supporting special government revenue fund. A new, higher rate structure went in effect in 2019, but the ambulance fund is still experiencing a cash deficit, as are many in the nation because of labor shortages and revenue shortfalls due to reimbursement by Medicare and Medicaid that do not pay for the full cost of service, noted Anderson.

The city council has authorized establishing an ambulance service taxing district, or a contractual arrangement with other jurisdictions serviced by the ambulance within the 989 square mile primary service area.

The intent is for the taxing district or contract to offset the costs of service that are not funded by insurance reimbursements.


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Visits with Santa, COVID-style
  • Updated

A local couple has found a way to provide pandemic-friendly visits with Santa and Mrs. Claus to local children — and adults — this year.

As Santa’s official helpers, Erik and Jeannie Strand will dress up as the jolly duo to wave at passerby’s from the window of the Edward Jones office from 5-6:30 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday until Christmas. The office is located at 445 Fourth Street.

Faces lit up on both sides of the glass last week, as bundled-up children and their families waved to the couple from the sidewalk.

“We’re having fun with this,” Jeannie said, smiling.

Because Jeannie is the music teacher at Falls Elementary School, a few onlookers caught on to who was playing the part of Mrs. Claus, but Erik was easily disguised behind the bushy white beard.

Social media posts from community members expressed appreciation to the couple for providing a chance for children to see Santa in a year where normal visits with the Christmas icon were deemed unsafe.


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Christmas tradition continues
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After a year full of cancellations and postponements, organizers of an annual Christmas tradition were determined their event wouldn't fall victim to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

So, while it will take on a different look, the Christmas Day Dinner will again be offered out of the Elks Lodge No. 1599, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 25. 

Much like the Community Thanksgiving Dinner held last month, the Dec. 25 meal will feature a to-go style format where vehicles will line up in front of the Elks to request the number meals needed. 

The International Falls City Council Monday agreed to prohibit parking from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Christmas Day on the south side of Third Street, between Second and Third avenues to allow for curb-side window-pick up of the Christmas Day Dinner.

Free meal delivery will also be provided.

Lee Grim, who has been involved in organizing the event's organization since its inception, said there was never a doubt the meal would be held; he and other organizers and volunteers would just had to adapt to the times. 

"We knew we were going to do this," he said. "We just had to get creative."

Lois Lundin, executive director of Backus Community Center, and Ashley Hall, director of the Falls Hunger Coalition, are involved in the dinner's planning, and know the needs of the community when it comes to food through experience with their respective organizations.

“We questioned how big the need was going to be,” Lundin said, adding Backus' Community Cafe's attendance continues to climb, signaling an increased need for food locally. “We had to consider how to plan for more, and prepare for what this event will look like.”

When last month's Thanksgiving Day dinner ran out of food, organizers knew they had to be ready for Christmas. Last year, about 800 people were served the Christmas Day dinner, and this year, Lundin said organizers are planning to feed 1,000 people.

Also different this year is having both local grocery stores owned by the same company. Grim and Lundin approached Joe Truman at SuperOne Foods about the dinner, not knowing what the company would be able to supply.

“We provided a food list to him, which he presented to Miners Inc.,” Grim said of the company that owns both SuperOne and County Market. “Miners is going to donate all of the food, which is incredible.”

The meal is free of charge, but any monetary donations will be given to the Falls Hunger Coalition. Grim said throughout the years of holding the holiday meal, more than $50,000 has been raised for the local food shelf.

To request meals for delivery, calls are required in advance by contacting Grim at 218-240-5125. The deliveries will be contactless, Lundin notes.

Volunteers to help with the dinner are still needed. Lundin said those interested in helping out can contact her at Backus Community Center, 285-7225; or Hall at the Falls Hunger Coalition, 283-8020.

“People can tell us what they'd be interested in doing,” Lundin said of volunteers. “We have all kinds of different jobs.”

Grim said he is pleased to see the tradition continue.

“We started this to spread the spirit of Christmas and give people an opportunity to share with others,” he said. “This meal is about Christmas spirit, and a very important thing to have running in our community on Christmas day... the response from people who receive meals and volunteer year after year is what keeps driving us to do this.”


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Educators discuss student achievement, struggles and highlights

As Falls High School approaches the halfway point of the second quarter, more failing grades this year are likely a result of distance learning struggles.

In the midst of a schedule that has students attending classes in person two days a week, and distance learning the other three, FHS Principal Tim Everson said there are 97 high school students with at least one failing grade at this point in the school year, compared to 51 students at the same time last year.

While the report doesn’t mean students have failed the class at this point, the issue is on educators’ radar and they are working to help students improve the grades before they are finalized at the end of the semester, Jan. 22.

“These grades are from quarter No. 1,” Everson said. “We give credit by semester so the grade is a continuation.”

Falls Superintendent Kevin Grover said many students are performing as they normally would, with some doing better, however that doesn’t hold true for everyone.

“We have higher numbers (of students) that are struggling,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they’re failing, but they aren’t doing as good as they normally would.”

The increase in failing grades can be the result of several factors, Grover said, and he sympathized with the situation of having to learn at home.

“It’s a different world trying to function out of your house,” he said, adding there are likely many distractions in a student’s home during learning hours.

The superintendent said ideally, all high school students would attend classes at school five days per week, but the district doesn’t have the space and staff to accommodate that during the ongoing pandemic.

“The next best thing was to rotate students in like we are doing,” Grover said. “And we make every effort to keep them on track.”

Everson said it’s fortunate Falls High School students can attend some in-person classes, an opportunity not all Minnesota students have. Nearly all public schools in Minnesota are using a distance or hybrid learning model as positive cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in the state. Only 37 Minnesota school districts or charter schools reported to the state that they were operating in person.

Neighboring high school students attending Littlefork-Big Falls School are learning under a complete distance learning model, with a date to return to the building expected to be announced after the new year.

“We feel fortunate we get students here two days a week,” Everson said. “We’re hoping to we can continue in the model we are in.”

Nationwide trend

The increase in failing grades is not unique to the Falls school district, and is experienced in school districts of all sizes from coast to coast.

Local administrators and teachers have increased outreach efforts by making calls to students and their families.

“Yesterday, I probably made 100 phone calls,” Everson told The Journal last week. “We’re trying to contact parents of students who are struggling, but also about positive things happening. We understand this is a difficult time for everybody.”

Grover agreed.

“We’re doing everything we can,” he said. “Staff are taking this seriously. They’re trying to make connections not only with the kids, but families where it is needed... anything to make sure kids keep doing what they need to do.”

To eliminate technology stress of distance learning, dozens of hot-spot internet connections, laptops or Chromebooks have been supplied to any student in need of resources. Many teachers are working with students on assignment deadlines and creating contracts to help improve grades before the end of the semester.

“Teachers know this isn’t easy,” Everson said. “They are trying to do everything they can to make kids successful.”

On the same note, the principal said he understands the many challenges families are faced with during the pandemic.

“We recognize parents are struggling too, and this is really hard on families,” he said.

Continued learning

While there are challenges with a learning model that includes distance learning, Grover said it’s important the school year progresses appropriately.

“We can’t give up a year of education,” he said. “Is it different? Yes, but we have standards that need to be covered. We still have expectations and we won’t be just passing everyone. The work needs to be put in. It’s going to take more of the village. None of us want to be where we are at, but we are. We need to educate. We want to keep kids accountable, and we want them to be as successful as possible in the format we’re in.”

Learning online and through Zoom meetings may not be for everyone, however, there are some students who are performing better in the distance learning setting.

“There is a percentage of kids who are doing better in this online environment than they would be doing in school,” Everson said. “Some kids like being at home to work on their assignments.”

When teachers are posting their lectures online, students can watch — and re-watch — the lessons if they need to. Having to teach in person and to an online audience adds work and stress to teachers’ plates, but Everson said efforts are appreciated.

“Staff is going above and beyond to help students,” he said. “I can’t say that enough... we know everyone is stressed out. We know this is difficult.”

The principal encouraged parents and guardians to utilize the district’s Skyward system to keep track of how their student is performing. If they need help with login access, they should contact the school office, he said.

“Skyward is a really good resource for parents to see how their kids are doing,” Everson said. “If parents need anything, they should reach out to us. We’ll work with them... We’ve got time for kids to get those grades up.”


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