Fire calls up, new home construction down

2007 was a busy year for firefighters but not for home builders. That's according to two annual reports presented at Monday night's Alexandria City Council meeting. Other big items on the council's busy agenda included replacing aging equipment -...

2007 was a busy year for firefighters but not for home builders.

That's according to two annual reports presented at Monday night's Alexandria City Council meeting.

Other big items on the council's busy agenda included replacing aging equipment - a 31-year-old rink floor at the Runestone Community Center (RCC) and a failing city well.

The Alexandria Fire Department responded to 205 incidents last year - the most in 10 years and 29 more calls than 2006.

Fires in the department's service area - the city and eight surrounding townships - caused $456,400 in damage, according to the report presented by Fire Chief Shane Schmidt.


It could have been worse though.

Because they were able to put out fires before they could spread, firefighters saved $329,000 worth of property from going up in smoke, or about 42 percent of the total property value. (More details from Schmidt's report are listed later in this story.)

Meanwhile, the local housing market experienced a slump, according to the 2007 building report from Bruce Jaspersen, the city's building official.

There were only 68 new homes built last year in the city and outlying townships of Alexandria, Hudson, LaGrand and Lake Mary, which are in the building department's enforcement area.

That's a drop of 25 percent from the 91 new homes constructed in 2006 and less than half of the 145 new homes built in the 2005's blockbuster year.

"It's been a downward spiral for the housing market," Jaspersen told the council. "Hopefully it will go up soon."

Commercial building wasn't nearly as bleak. Value of new commercial building was estimated at $17.3 million in the city - up nearly 80 percent from 2006's $9.7 million.

"Commercial-wise, it was very busy," Jaspersen noted. "There's not too many places in town where you don't see something new going on."


The activity, however, still pales in comparison to 2005, which produced nearly $32 million in new commercial building.

Jaspersen's office issued a total of 1,270 permits last year, up slightly from 2006's 1,204. The estimated cost of all the building was $56.9 million - up 23 percent from 2006's $46.4 million but down 42 percent from 2005's record $97.9 million.

The building department collected $372,876 in permit fees - 15 percent more than the previous year's $323,141.

In other action, the council:

--Authorized RCC Manager Vinnie Hennen to receive quotes from engineering firms on how much it will cost to replace the RCC's refrigerated floor and entire refrigeration system.

Built in 1977, the RCC's floor has far exceeded its 20-year life expectancy, Hennen told the council.

The RCC has had to repair the floor many times and continues to lose refrigerant every year. Hennen said the main problems are the metal piping and Freon.

Hennen said the RCC is "shooting in the dark" trying to figure out how much the repairs will cost but the figure will likely fall between $750,000 and $900,000.


That's more than the $600,000 the city has in the RCC's capital improvement budget. The RCC Commission will have to come up with a way to pay for the over-run.

Hennen wants to hire an engineering firm with extensive experience in hockey and curling rinks. The firm would be able to nail down a more precise estimate of the costs and prepare specifications for the project.

The timeline is tight; the RCC needs to use the floor by the end of September and it also needs to have summer ice in the West Rink.

--Called for bids to replace an old well on the north edge of the city's well field by the Eagles Club.

Scott Deitz, operations manager for Alexandria Light and Power, said the well was drilled in 1993, often plugs up and is only capable of producing about 100 gallons of water a minute.

A new well, estimated to cost about $140,000, will provide 700 to 800 gallons a minute.

The new well is budgeted for 2008 and was approved by the ALP Board at its January meeting.

--Listened to a presentation from the Alexandria Sesquicentennial Association's plans to celebrate the city of Alexandria's 150th anniversary in 2008.

Most of the activities will take place this June and include a parade, a theater production, time capsule ceremony, a big band concert on the courthouse lawn, old time ice cream social, a baseball game, Norwegian bands, a "Day at the Fort," Runestone Museum celebration of its 50th year and more.

The association, which is a non-profit charitable organization with tax-exempt status, is seeking official support, participation and financial support from the city.

It asked the city to contribute $5,000 to help buy 50 banners that would be placed on street poles to promote the sesquicentennial celebration.

The council decided to refer the financial request to Alexandria Hotel and Hospitality (AHH) for its approval. The council noted that the AHH uses lodging tax proceeds to promote Alexandria, which fits in well with the goal of the sesquicentennial.

--Approved the 2007 fire department report presented by Fire Chief Shane Schmidt.

Here are some highlights not mentioned previously in this story:

In April, Tracy Weaver joined the ranks as fire chaplain and has helped coordinate relief efforts to help fire victims through the local Red Cross chapter.

Also in April, the department purchased a 1999 "sky arm" bucket and fire truck, and resurfaced the floor in the fire hall.

A highlight in July was escorting local soldiers who returned home from the war.

In September, the department erected a firefighter memorial facing 3rd Avenue West that contains the names of all the firefighters dating back to 1883. It also painted the inside of the fire station.

In October, the department promoted Fire Prevention Week with fire drills at area schools and an open house at the fire station. Schmidt also attended a breakfast meeting with Governor Tim Pawlenty at the governor's residence.

The department said a fond farewell to four members who served the department for 20 years or more - Dave Keller, Dan Ridler, Tom Young and Kevin Pearson retired.

The department is taking an active leadership role at the state level: Jeff Karrow, first assistant chief, was elected Region 6 director of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association and Schmidt was elected vice president of the organization.

Of the 788 fire departments in the state, only 32 are rated higher than Alexandria's Class 4, Schmidt said.

All of the Alexandria Fire Department's drivers completed training to obtain a commercial driver's license and the department is working on attaining a "Firefighter II" rating.

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

Schmidt said the 30-member department is looking forward to hosting the 2008 Minnesota State Fire Department conference this June. He added that 2008 also marks the department's 125th anniversary.

--Approved a preliminary reading to incorporate the new Minnesota State Fire Code into the city ordinances. It updates the code adopted in 2003.

--Referred a request to use portions of city roads for a Chain of Lakes Triathlon event on May 3 to the city police and public works departments.

--Referred a request to use bike and walk paths for the 2008 Alexandria Walk for Multiple Sclerosis to the city police and public works departments.

The walk is planned for May 4 and will go from the City Park to the Central Lakes Trail and to West Lake Cowdry Road.

--Approved a second and final reading establishing fees for various licenses and permits issued by the city.

The five-page document covers liquor licenses, building fees, tree replacement costs, storm water fees and much more.

--Called for bids on the waterline project that will complete phase two, part two of the orderly annexation agreement with Alexandria Township.

The work will take place along County Road 46, the McKay Avenue extension, Pioneer Road, a half-mile section of 50th Avenue and County Roads 23/123.

Bids will be opened on February 26.

--Approved a proclamation saluting the 50th anniversary of the Runestone Museum.

The museum, which was established through the efforts of Gordon Duenow, Lee Johnson and Dr. E.J. Tanquist Sr., has been an "integral part of the continued growth and prosperity" of the community, the proclamation stated.

--Agreed to add "no parking' signs along both sides of 34th Avenue from South Broadway to Pioneer Road.

The action was recommended by the city's highway committee to prevent residents from the nearby Pheasant Run Apartments from parking on both sides of the street, which created a traffic hazard. They'll have to use their own parking lot or garages.

--Approved a preliminary ordinance to increase the penalties for parking violations in the city.

If the ticket was paid within 48 hours, the fine would be $10. Right now, it's $3.

If the fine wasn't paid within 10 days, it would increase to $20. It's currently $6.

For other types of parking violations, fines paid within 48 hours would be $25 (up from $10) and fines paid later than 10 days would be $50 (up from $20).

Illegally parking in a handicapped spot would carry a fine of $50 if paid within 48 hours (up from $10) and would rise to $100 after that time (up from $20).

Most parking violations are routinely paid on time, Taddei noted. In instances where violators are warned of the increased penalties, they quickly pay the amount, he added.

The city hasn't raised the fee in at least 10 years, perhaps longer, according to city officials.

--Was informed that the Coalition of Minnesota Cities will host its annual Legislative Action Day at the Capitol on February 20. The mayor plans to attend and some council members may be there as well.

--Was informed that a January 24 public information meeting to discuss the city's southwest storm sewer project went well.

City Administrator Jim Taddei said that about 35 residents attended the hour and a half meeting and applauded the city presenters afterward.

He added that residents seemed surprised that the city could put together such a big project so quickly.

--Was informed that Lakes Area Recreation will hold an information meeting to discuss its expansion plans at the new Armory/YMCA site off County Road 82 West. The meeting will take place at Discovery Middle School on Thursday, February 7 (not on February 6 as reported in a previous story) at 6:30 p.m.

--Made the following board and committee appointments for 2008:

Rob Rydberg - airport commission; Peter Pfeffer and W.P. Luckemeyer - board of health; Anna Fletcher, Janice Beliveau and Doreley Piere - cultural competence committee; Donald Arm - economic development board; Colleen Thompson - Housing and Redevelopment Authority; Wade McCoy, Rick Paulsen and Dave Horning - Industrial Park Board of Design; Barry Ness to cable TV commission (replacing Larry McCoy); Mike Bouressa to Lakes Area Recreation Board; and Kevin Becker to storm water utility committee (a new position to expand the committee).

One committee, the disability advisory committee, may be disbanded because none of the existing members have expressed an interest in serving, according to Taddei.

Mayor Ness explained that another organization for the sight impaired is now operating in Alexandria and may be taking care of the committee's needs.

During the public comment period at the end of the meeting, Alexandria resident Virgil Batesole expressed disappointment with how the city fills its committees.

He said the council should consider selecting new members who express an interest in serving instead of asking the same people to serve. "If people want to be on, they should be coming to you," Batesole said.

Council member Harvey Weisel said that his goal is to get a good cross section of citizens serving on the committees. He doesn't want to have one person serving on several committees just because they've expressed an interest.

Mayor Dan Ness noted that over the years, those on the committees now understand that the city typically contacts them to see if they want to serve another term; some aren't even aware that their term is expiring.

Batesole said the city has wasted a month trying to fill its committees. He asked which committees still have openings or members that the city has not heard back from.

These include the park board, police advisory commission and the industrial park board of design.

--Approved the following licenses: sign hanger - JH Signs and Designs, LLC (new); heating - CenterPoint Energy (renewal) and NewMech Companies (new); fireworks - Mills Fleet Farm and Kmart; and gambling - Parent Advisory Committee for bingo on March 27 at Washington Elementary School and the Douglas County Chapter of the American Red Cross for a raffle drawing for an April 1 event.

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