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$844,000 up in smoke - city gets good news about fires, bids for ice arena project

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news Alexandria, 56308
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Alexandria Minnesota 225 7th Ave E
P.O. Box 549
56308

Fires in the Alexandria area caused an estimated $844,000 in damage last year.

The good news: Alexandria firefighters saved more than $1.5 million worth of property that caught fire from going up in smoke.

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That's according to the annual fire department's report discussed at Monday night's Alexandria City Council meeting.

The report was prepared by Shane Schmidt, who is serving his sixth and final year as fire chief.

In 2008, Alexandria firefighters responded to 204 calls, which compares closely to the 206 calls in 2007.

Fourteen calls resulted in fire damage and eight of them involved buildings.

The cause of most of the fire calls, 53 percent or 17 instances, were undetermined after they were investigated.

Eleven were unintentional; two were the result of failed equipment or a malfunctioning heat source; one was an act of nature; and one was intentionally set, according to the report.

When fire calls came in, firefighters acted quickly, the report showed. They responded to 79 percent of the calls in six minutes or less. On average, 27 firefighters turned out per call.

As in the past, the vast majority of the calls, 142 of them or 73 percent of the total, occurred within the city. Other calls were reported in the townships of LaGrand (22 calls), Alexandria (15), Hudson (six), Holmes City (three), Lake Mary (three), Carlos (two) and Ida (one).

It was a busy year of training for local firefighters, Schmidt noted. They attended three-hour-long drills on Monday nights, totaling 156 hours. They also completed 12 hours of training one weekend per year at state-certified courses throughout the state.

Combined, Alexandria's 30 volunteer firefighters accumulated about 3,600 hours of training throughout the year. All but three of the members attained the ranking of "firefighter II."

Schmidt said he didn't know of any other fire departments in the state with more highly trained members, except for departments that have paid firefighters.

For the fifth year in a row, the department received the Life Safety Achievement Award for having no fire fatalities in its service area.

Last year marked a landmark for the department as it celebrated 125 years of service to the community.

The year also had a sad note, however. The department's long-time mascot or fire dog, "Alex," died. A monument was put in place near the fire hall in Alex's honor.

The council accepted the report and thanked Schmidt and the firefighters for all their hard work.

In other action, the council:

•Issued $1.19 million in general obligation bonds to pay for a project that will replace the Runestone Community Center's refrigerated floor system.

The city received a very favorable interest rate on the bonds - 4.11 percent, well under the 4.65 percent rate the city's bonding consultant, Springsted, Inc., estimated a few weeks ago. The low bid, one of four submitted, came from Wachovia Securities, LLC.

Terri Heaton from Springsted said that in addition to bond rates improving in the last couple of weeks, the city's decision to change the agency rating its credit from Moody's to Standard and Poor's made a big difference.

Standard and Poor's, she said, rated the city two notches higher (AA-) after factoring in the city's status as a regional trade center, its moderate overall debt burden, its continued growth and its staff's pro-active approach to annexation and budget challenges.

Heaton said the better rating saved the city about $60,000 in interest costs.

Typically, the city would issue revenue bonds to pay for such a project but according to Springsted, the abatement plan allows the city more flexibility because the abatements are not subject to levy limits imposed by the state.

The taxes paid by the property owners in the abatement area will not change; their taxes will just be earmarked for the RCC improvements.

Work at the RCC is expected to begin in May. Under the terms of the contract, the new floor must be completed by August 1.

Because the new floor will be seamless and no corrodible materials will be used, it's expected to last 50 years. The new refrigeration system may be expanded to handle a second ice rink if the city ever decides to pursue it.

•Decertified a tax increment financing (TIF) district at the request of Jason Murray, director of the Alexandria Economic Development Commission.

The district was established back in 2006 to help Geneticporc (also known as Blackwell Associates) with an expansion project. It initially planned to build a 5,400 square foot research and development facility in the city's Industrial Park where the former Chassis Liner building was located but it later selected a different site. Geneticporc is a national swine genetics company, specializing in genetics research, sales, marketing and technical assistance. It provides genetically improved seed stock material to pork producers.

TIF is a tool used by cities to encourage development and new jobs. For a specified period of time, taxes on the land being developed are frozen at the current amount. The tax difference between the undeveloped land and the developed land - the increment - is used by the developer to make the improvements.

Cities benefit because the property ends up generating more tax dollars once the TIF period ends.

In another TIF-related decision, the council voted to decertify one parcel of land in the TIF district that was established for fgd LLC, the company that built Hampton Inn and Suites along South Broadway.

The property ended up being split so one of the parcels, a vacant lot, was removed from the district.

The decision will not affect the TIF established for fgd, noted Murray.

•Approved a final plat for E&H Commercial Acres First Addition at 2615 Aga Drive.

The preliminary plat was approved back in November 2007.

•Approved a final plat for "Celebration Hills" west of County Road 46 (McKay Avenue), about a quarter-mile south of the new elementary school.

The plat includes a 22-acre site for a new First Lutheran Church. The property is owned by the Johnson family, which plans to convey the land to the church.

•Approved a conditional use application that could clear the way for a new high school sometime in the future.

The 165-acre site is located on Pioneer Road SE. It's owned by School District 206 and was purchased as the result of a referendum that voters approved in 2007.

Voters would have to approve another referendum before construction could begin and that isn't expected to take place until 2011 or 2012.

Several conditions were attached to the approval. The district, for instance, would have to get permits and approval from the Corps of Engineers, the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Health and the city building department.

A total of 1,085 parking stalls are also required. Council member Sara Carlson asked if it would be wise to look at even more parking space. She said that when there are several events happening at Discovery Middle School, for example, there doesn't seem to be enough parking.

Weber said school officials have said they don't plan to schedule several activities at the same time. He added that the parking spaces at the proposed new high school meet or exceed the city's ordinance.

•Approved an amendment to a planned unit development (PUD), Winona Shores Estates.

The applicant, Greg Verdugt, wanted to increase the number of units from seven to 10.

Smaller, more affordable units are more in demand now, according to the developer and that's why the project was changed.

The homes, a little more than 1,300 square feet per unit, will be marketed to those 55 and older who are seeking to rent or own a home in the $140,000 to $149,000 price range.

•Approved first readings to amend annexation ordinances for the Nadeau and Zavadil properties, which were approved last month.

The state recommended the city change the way property taxes are disbursed on the properties. The city will reimburse Lake Mary Township in equal installments instead of a graduated payment method. The total reimbursement will remain the same.

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