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Austin looks at potential levy; Huisentruit case lights up

News From Greater Minnesota

Lawmakers don’t want to raise taxes, but officials in Minnesota cities and counties are facing the prospect of raising taxes in their stead. When Gov. Tim Pawlenty began slashing LGA Local government aid, cities and counties were faced with a choice: cut services or raise taxes. Such is the position Austin residents find themselves in today as they face a 14 percent tax levy increase, reports Amanda Lillie of the Austin Daily Herald. Putting the proverbial lipstick on a pig, the Austin City Council is reminding residents that the city will still have one of the lowest tax rates among like-sized cities in the state. (Kudos to Lillie, who does a nice job comparing Austin to Owatonna, Winona and Faribault). Austin will get $7.12 million in LGA in 2012. The 14 percent tax will raise about $4 million. Even then, the city will make cuts to building maintenance, emergency expenditures and a vacant position in the street department will remain open. Will Austinites be happy with a city that has a hard time meeting their needs? City Administrator Jim Hurm summed it up: “We may need to, one way or another, find additional revenues unless we want to significantly reduce the services we provide.”

The Fergus Falls Journal picked up a report out of St. Paul that above-average temperatures and limited rain let Minnesota farmers make rapid harvest progress. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture warned of precipitation shortfalls in the southern third of Minnesota. Topsoil moisture was rated 7 percent very short, 22 percent short, 64 percent adequate and 7 percent surplus, a decline from a week ago. Spring wheat was 77 percent harvested, surpassing the five-year average of 76 percent. Oats were 90 percent harvested, compared to a 91 percent average, while barley was 76 percent harvested, compared with an 83 percent average. Corn condition ratings were 24 percent fair and 51 percent good, a slight decrease. Soybean condition ratings fell slightly to 26 percent fair and 50 percent good.

New allegations have surfaced in the sad and mysterious case of Jodi Huisentruit, the Long Prairie woman who was abducted outside her Mason City, Iowa, apartment in 1995. The Austin Daily Herald has picked up several stories by John Skipper of the Mason City Globe Gazette. Huisentruit, a St. Cloud State University graduate and morning anchor with KIMT television in Mason City, disappeared in June 1995 and is presumed dead. There are two new twists in the case: Former officer Maria Ohl claims she supplied police with information possibly linking Lt. Ron Vande Weerd, Lt. Frank Stearns and former DCI agent Bill Basler with the abduction. She contends police never followed through on her tips. Also, her brother-in-law, Rev. Shane Philpott of Christian Fellowship Church, said allegations of police misconduct came to his attention four years ago and were ignored. Philpott said he received a phone call from Minnesota on June 28, 2007, from someone who claimed to have information on Huisentruit and that because the information incriminated Mason City police officers, he didn’t want to meet or talk with local authorities. Philpott contacted his sister-in-law, Officer Ohl, who told him to contact the police department. Philpott talked with Stearns and Vande Weerd. After a month, Philpott called police and spoke again with Stearns, who transferred him to Capt. Dennis Bengston, who said the information wasn’t credible. In 2009, Philpott and his church filed a defamation suit against the city and police officers on an unrelated matter. In preparing for the case, lawyers requested police contact logs and discovered there was no record of Philpott’s contacts with police in the Huisentruit case. In 2010, as part of the litigation in the civil suit, Ohl gave a deposition in which she mentioned the Huisentruit information which, according to Philpott, caused Police Chief Mike Lashbrook to shut down the deposition. The next day, Ohl came to the church office at the request of Lashbrook to get the information Philpott had provided police in 2007. On the advice of his attorney, Philpott turned over his information not to the police, but to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation. Ohl informed Lashbrook of what had transpired. Not long after that, she was put on paid administrative leave last year and was terminated Aug. 4. Ohl said she was fired because of her handling of the Huisentruit information and now has a case against the department before the Civil Service Commission. She has also filed suit in federal district court claiming sex discrimination, religious discrimination and retaliation.

American Crystal Sugar is ready to start its harvest season with inexperienced replacement workers, reports Dave Kolpack in the Fargo Forum. The lockout of about 1,300 American Crystal workers is entering its second month, and there are no negotiations in sight. While company officials say things will be fine when processing begins at its plants in Minnesota, North Dakota and Iowa, union officials question whether it can be done safely. “Can American Crystal run the factories with these transient workers? They could destroy the equipment, they could get hurt in the factory, and they could lose the farmers millions and millions of dollars,” union representative Mark Froemke said. American Crystal spokesmen Brian Ingulsrud said the replacement workers have spent a lot of time training. American Crystal’s last offer was a 17 percent pay increase over five years, but workers rejected it over job security provisions, health-care costs and language in the contract they say will hurt workers in future years.

Deer may be on the menu in Owatonna soon. There are too many of the herbivores, mostly fawns, and this has city officials thinking about a staged hunt, reports Rebecca Rodenborg of the Owatonna People’s Press. One option to thin the herd is for a lottery to allow residents to hunt deer with archery equipment. The other would be to give the task to the Owatonna Police Department. The police “have trained sharp shooters who would kind of take the charge and take care of culling out these herds we have,” city parks and recreation director Jeff McKay said, adding that because of public-safety concerns, he would be in favor of the police department staging the hunt.

I don’t know why it comes as a shock to me that Willmar has a mosque and that the mosque needs to expand, but it does. The Islamic Society of Willmar has made an offer to buy half of the Garfield School property in southwest Willmar, reports Linda Vanderwerf of the West Central Tribune. The school board has received a counter offer but will not reveal any details. The Islamic Society currently has a mosque at 410 Becker Ave. S.W. in downtown Willmar. I continue to be amazed at Minnesota’s diversity.

Jana Hollingsworth of the Duluth News Tribune has put to rest the endless stories about the convergence of three Duluth high schools into two. Central, East and Denfield are now just Denfield and East with former Central students split between them. Denfield has been renovated, while East is new on the site of the former Ordean Middle School. More than 1,300 students had registered at Denfeld, down from the 1,393 at Central last year. East’s enrollment has grown by about 100 students have registered so far, with 1,628 students as of Tuesday compared to 1,525 last year. The school will be mostly ready on opening day, except for the football field, some vocational program space, family and consumer science kitchens and a greenhouse. Classes will go on as planned, but teachers will work their instruction around what’s not done. The field won’t be ready for use until next year.

John Fitzgerald is a freelance journalist and a longtime Minnesota resident. He lives in Buffalo.

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