A year of tragedies, progress, uncertaintyHow will Douglas County residents look back on 2008? With sadness – tragic crashes claimed many lives on the roads. With some closure – three major court cases came to an end with sentencing. A decision was also finally reached about where to put a jail. And the long legal battle over County Road 42 appears to be settled.
By: By Al Edenloff, Mike Enright and Celeste Beam - Echo Press News Team, Alexandria Echo Press
How will Douglas County residents look back on 2008?
With sadness – tragic crashes claimed many lives on the roads.
With some closure – three major court cases came to an end with sentencing. A decision was also finally reached about where to put a jail. And the long legal battle over County Road 42 appears to be settled.
With some uncertainty – the fate of a controversial sewer project is still up in the air; a U.S. Senate recount is still in limbo; and the faltering economy is hitting home, forcing local governments to readjust their budgets.
And with gratitude, too – a brave 9-year-old girl made a miraculous recovery after being seriously injured in a four-wheel crash. Many big projects in the community also made significant progress, including a new YMCA, an expansion at the hospital, construction of a new elementary school and plans for a new veterans outpatient center.
The Echo Press editorial staff voted on the “Top 10” stories that made news in Douglas County in 2008. Here are the results:
1. Jail progress
After more than five years filled with indecision, disagreement and an almost total lack of progress, Douglas County Commissioners changed their tune in 2008 and locked up plans to replace the county’s defunct downtown jail.
The catalyst came last April, when Douglas County Sheriff Troy Wolbersen, faced with a state-mandated August 2009 shut-down date for the current jail and a board still deeply divided over whether to build a new jail or remodel the old one, proposed a compromise: move the Douglas County Public Works Department and retrofit its 3rd Avenue West location into a jail.
Commissioners agreed to pursue the plan, and in August they finalized their decision.
The county broke ground late September on the estimated 50,000 square-foot, $6.8 million new public works facility, located directly south of the fairgrounds.
Officials say the project is going smoothly and is on schedule to be completed next April, with construction on the roughly 55,000 square-foot, $15.76 million jail set to begin as soon as public works is completely moved out.
2. CLRSD ups and downs
In the works for nearly a decade, few years have proven as tumultuous during the existence of the Central Lakes Region Sanitary District as 2008.
In less than a year, CLRSD’s controversial proposed three-phase sewage treatment plant, once estimated at $53 million, has gone from being a project on the cusp of joining the state’s construction pipeline to one that has been put on hold indefinitely.
In that time, multiple events have transpired to shape the fate of the district moving forward.
With a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency-ordered public comment period on CLRSD’s plans wrapping up and the agency expected to approve the district’s proposed wastewater treatment facility, two grassroots anti-sewer groups surfaced over the summer.
They were the Miltona-based Citizens League for Environmental and Economic Responsibilty (CLEER) and the Brandon-based Big Chippewa, Whiskey and Devils lakes (BCWD) sewer stoppers.
The months following took CLRSD on a roller coaster ride that has included:
•Highly vocal local opposition.
•A lawsuit against the district by the anti-sewer crowd.
•A needs assessment for one phase of the project.
•A first delayed and then narrow approval of another project phase by the MPCA.
•A warning about the costs of the same phase by another state agency.
•A district-wide survey – paid for by the anti-sewer groups – which reported nearly three-fourths of area residents did not support a centralized sewer system.
•One of six townships included in the district (Brandon) voting to withdraw from CLRSD.
3. Big building plans
Despite the shaky economy, several major building projects took big strides forward in Douglas County in 2008.
Here are just a few of the big ones: 3M expansion ($48.5 million), Douglas County Hospital expansion ($31 million, estimated); Knute Nelson senior living campus ($24.9 million), new (as yet un-named) elementary school ($20 mllion), Legacy of Alexandria ($10 million), Alexandria Technical College law enforcement addition ($8.5 million), Douglas County Public Works ($6.8 million), Lakewood Terrace ($5.2 million), Hampton Inn ($4.8 million), new veterans care clinic ($3 million, estimated), Pfeninger Warehouse ($3 million), Indigo Plaza ($3.2 million), Peaceful Bliss Assisted Living ($2.5 million), Diamond Willow ($2.1 million), Pipeline Travel Plaza truck stop ($2 million), Dakota Supply Group ($2 million), Walgreen’s ($1.4 million), Gate City Bank ($1.3 million), Aagard Group ($1.1 million), Glenwood State Bank ($1 million), Heritage Transport ($1 million), Northern Food and Dairy ($850,000), Thrifty White ($738,000), Nordic Aseptic ($677,000), State Bank and Trust ($675,000), Bennigan’s ($621,000) and Steussy Diesel ($400,000).
4. Economic woes/state cuts
While the Douglas County is holding up much better than many areas, the economic crisis that’s dogging the nation and the state is making an impact here.
Earlier this month, Governor Tim Pawlenty complied with state law requiring a balanced budget by cutting $110 million in local government aid.
Douglas County’s cut amounted to $362,486. In Alexandria, the loss translated to $226,358 – money that the city had already placed in its budget. Osakis lost $34,482. Other cities in the county were spared because they have populations under 1,000.
Local government leaders said they’ll have to dip into some of their reserves to make up for the unexpected cuts.
Alexandria will likely hold off on hiring two additional police officers and delay major purchases such as squad cars and street equipment.
The Douglas County Board has decided to go after salaries. They denied a requested 3 percent raise to 10 appointed department heads and froze 2009 wages for all elected county officials, including the commissioners.
5. Fatal crashes
Douglas County roads turned deadly several times in the past year. The community also lost at least nine local or former residents in crashes that occurred elsewhere.
In February, Garrett Yell, a former Jefferson High School graduate died in a snowmobile crash in St. Louis County. Also that same month, Lynette Eiser, a former Alexandria resident, was killed in a two-vehicle crash in Nevada.
In March, Ronald Hansen of Alexandria died in a semitruck accident in California.
In April, two local men, Ken Klug of Garfield and Julian Kvanbek of Evansville died in a head-on crash on County Road 82 east of Brophy Park.
In May, Dawn Rickert of Miltona was killed in a one-vehicle rollover on County Road 3 near Spruce Centre. Also that month, Paul Johnson of Osakis died in a head-on crash on Interstate 94 near Avon.
In July, Richard Eidem of Osakis died when his single-seat ultralight aircraft crashed near the Sauk Centre Airport. Also in July, Jonathan Yarbrough of Glenwood died in a motorcycle crash near County Road 34.
In November, Jamie Sear of Milbank, South Dakota died in a two-vehicle crash involving a semitrailer at Carlos Corners. The month ended on a tragic note when hunting buddies Rick Klimek of Lowry and Matt Baumann of Alexandria died in a one-vehicle crash near Amery, Wisconsin.
December brought six crash-related deaths: Scott Loken, a former Alexandrian, died in a one-vehicle crash near Faribault; Shannen Maus, an Osakis firefighter, was killed in a one-vehicle crash in Todd County; Leslie Hermanson of Brandon died in a two-vehicle crash on County Road 82 east of Brandon; and three members of a West Fargo family – Tom Dunnuck and two of his children, Samuel and Gabriel – died in a Christmas Eve crash on I-94 just east of Alexandria.
6. Election results
Douglas County voters turned out in healthy numbers – 88 percent of the eligible voters went to the polls – on election day. Their message: We like things pretty much the way they are.
They favored keeping a Republican, John McCain, in the White House and they gave the incumbent the nod in every federal and state race they voted in.
Voters also handed Douglas County incumbents Jerry Johnson and Bev Bales re-election victories.
In the Alexandria City Council races, two incumbents – Mayor Dan Ness and Ward 5 council member Elroy Frank – were both re-elected. Long-time Ward 3 councilman Harvey Weisel, however, was defeated by challenger Owen Miller.
Heading into the new year, Douglas County voters, and the rest of Minnesota, are still wondering who will win the hotly contested U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Norm Coleman and DFLer Al Franken. A recount is still under way and ballots are being contested.
If it were up to Douglas County, Coleman would be the winner. He clobbered Franken by 15 points, 48 percent to 33 percent.
7. Court cases conclude
Three big court cases came to a close in 2008.
In May, Roger Edwin Wussow, the driver in a pedestrian hit-and-run accident that resulted in the death of 72-year-old Burdette “Bud” Olson of Alexandria in August of 2007, was sentenced by Judge Lisa Borgen in Douglas County District Court.
Wussow, 65, of Garfield, was sentenced for leaving the scene of a personal injury accident, which is a felony level offense.
He was sentenced to three years of probation with conditions, which includes serving six months in the Douglas County Jail; paying $2,082 in fines; undergoing a chemical use assessment and following the recommendations of the assessment; abstaining from the use of alcohol during his probationary period; and paying $7,395 in restitution to Olson’s family.
In September, Andrew Paul Bennewitz, 19, of Alexandria, was sentenced to 180 months (15 years) in prison for attempting to murder his stepfather.
Previously, Bennewitz pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree murder of his then stepfather, James Blenker, on February 5, 2007. Blenker survived the shooting, but was left paralyzed from the waist down.
In addition to spending 15 years in prison, Judge Conrad Freeberg ordered Bennewitz to pay $28,000 in restitution to Blenker and $13,000 to the Crime Victims Reparations Board.
Earlier this month, Darlene Williams, 45, of Alexandria, was sentenced to spend 150 months (12 and one-half years) in prison for stabbing her 47-year-old boyfriend, Delvaine Hecker, to death on November 28, 2007.
In September of this year, Williams pleaded guilty to murder in the second-degree and on December 17, after accepting Williams’ plea, Judge Ann Carrott found Williams guilty of second-degree unintentional murder.
Although her sentence was for 150 months, Williams was ordered to serve a minimum of 100 months (a little more than eight years) with supervised probation not to exceed 50 months after that.
8. YMCA progress
The Alexandria Area YMCA continues to make progress on its dream of raising nearly $9 million to build a new 56,000 square foot facility on County Road 82 west of Alexandria.
It has to raise $1.8 million to complete the final fundraising campaign, which is entitled, “Race to the Finish.”
YMCA leaders made the difficult decision in October to delay groundbreaking until the campaign goal ($8,885,000) had been achieved.
With the economy taking a difficult turn, uncertainty with the national election and the holiday’s approaching, YMCA leaders decided it was best to take a break from actively fundraising and develop a revised plan and kick off a revised campaign after January 1.
YMCA leaders remain confident that they’ll raise the remaining dollars by February 15 and that that they’ll break ground in the spring of 2009.
As of December 8, 356 donors have contributed $7,167,325 or 81 percent of the campaign goal.
9. County Road 42
Delayed for years by legal roadblocks, two decisions issued in 2008 by the state’s highest courts have paved the way for the long-planned expansion of Douglas County Road 42/34/11.
County officials have sought since 2005 to widen the roadway splitting Lakes Carlos and L’Homme Dieu, but the Lake Carlos Area Association has opposed the project from the start.
That same year, the LCAA filed a citizen’s petition for an environmental review of the project known as an Environmental Assessment Worksheet, threatening a lawsuit if the county didn’t comply.
Following the EAW results, the lake association took the county to court to try and force it to perform a more in-depth study called an Environmental Impact Study (EIS), but the motion was denied by district court.
The LCAA appealed, and in September the Minnesota Court of Appeals again ruled against the association.
Again, the LCAA appealed, this time to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
In a one-sentence decision handed out in November, the state’s highest court also denied the LCAA’s request that Douglas County perform an EIS.
With the appeals process exhausted, the county is now free to move forward with its construction plans.
10. ATV crash recovery
A tale of tragedy turned triumph persevered this year in Douglas County, as told by the story of one little girl who, with her irrepressible spirit and infectious smile, defied the odds.
On July 7, 10-year-old Katelyn Langner was critically injured in an all-terrain-vehicle accident near Garfield when she lost control of the four-wheeler she was driving with her two young cousins. The 700-pound machine went careening down an embankment before smashing into a telephone poll.
Katelyn suffered massive head injuries and was air-lifted to Hennepin County Medical Center, where she underwent hours of surgery with teams of doctors working to stop the hemorrhaging in her brain and repair multiple fractures to her face.
Amazingly, not only did Katelyn survive, but she has recovered – quickly. She returned home 17 days after being admitted to HCMC’s pediatric intensive care unit; 15 days after being roused from a medically induced coma.
Over the last few months, Katelyn has returned to school, and though she still struggles at times, she is not expected to suffer any serious long-term effects.