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Rushford struggles with bad wells and condemnations

Fri, Sep 21st, 2007
Posted in Government

RUSHFORD - Looking a little weary nearly a month after flooding transformed Rushford into a disaster area, Mayor Les Ladewig and City Council members Nancy Benson, Laura Deering, Larry Johnson and Herb Highum met in special session on Monday September 17, 2007 to consider a number of disaster relief and reconstruction issues as well as follow-up on pre-flood matters.

Thanks and No Thanks

Right at 6:30, the small City Hall reception area filled with residents and business-owners. Mayor Ladewig read the agenda then asked for additional agenda items. Roger Colbensen said he wanted to thank the City for the "good work" it has done in response to the flood. "That goes for all," Colbensen said. "We still have a hard row to hoe."

In response, Ladewig once again expressed gratitude to the City employees and everyone involved in the flood effort.

Dwayne Ostrem, speaking for a small contingent from the business community, echoed general appreciation for flood response. Ostrem then explained that on the previous Friday, members of the business community had met with the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, Dan McElroy. The disaster relief bill crafted in the 11-September special session allocated to DEED $35-million in aid for business damaged by the flood, and business-owners attended the Friday meeting to learn more about the relief program, which DFL-legislators had 2-days earlier described as a bundle of flexible grants and forgivable loans designed to cover most losses.

"It was a long way from that," stated Ostrem, clearly frustrated by the news that in the relief package laid out by McElroy, there would be no grants, forgivable loans would only cover up-to 30-percent of business claims, and no one would be eligible for State aid without first applying to the Small Business Administration. "We would ask the Council," Ostrem continued, "to recognize the business community, and work out a program of tailored, forgivable loans. If the business community is asked to pay back even zero-interest loans, it will only prolong the bleeding."

Another resident noted that building permits for renovation cost $400. He questioned the policy. Mayor Ladewig explained that permit fees paid for building inspection required by the State building code, adding that in many cases, the City paid for additional inspection costs above the cost of permits. "We adopted the State code for the safety and welfare of residents," Ladewig said.

City Clerk Kathy Zacher commented that $400-permit-fees were not typical. "It depends on the square footage," she explained.

With that, Ladewig returned to the DEED issue, announcing that a meeting would take place on Thursday. "Terry Erickson from Semcac and someone from Pettitpiece, a Mankato-based economic development company, will be there to answer questions about the special session."

Last week, the City announced that Semcac would represent the City in handling applications for residential and business aid under the State disaster relief bill. "We want to get the process going, and structure this," said Ladewig.

Said Ostrem, "Whenever possible, the business wants to work together with the City."

Bad Wells

On the day public officials proclaimed an end to the boil-drinking-water-order, administrator Windy Block reported that engineers working to solve water problems have discovered 130-wells operating in the City, many of them cross-connected with municipal water. "We knew of 43-wells. No-doubt, the number will increase," said Block, adding, "The community has been far too lax with water issues. Correcting this will not always be well-received," he said, referring to costs borne by homeowners for installing city water. "But we'll never have a secure system [safe from bacterial and chemical contamination] if we don't do this. We're working with the County on a mitigation program."

Condemned Structures

The City continues to struggle with the issue of condemning buildings. In flood-damaged neighborhoods, many structures have been gutted and stripped down to the frames. A significant number straddle beams resting on temporary columns until new basement walls can be built. But there are also many structures that sit much as the flood left them: damaged, in the owner's estimation, beyond repair. To get on with it, demolishing and rebuilding, these owners need a Letter of Condemnation - presumably from the City. This is nowhere so evident as in the devastated Bluff View Trailer Park where 33-manufactured homes and 25-out-buildings fester on land declared contaminated by the MPCA even before floodwaters could be pumped out. The order was later rescinded.

"It's reached a point with the mobile home park that this [condemnation] is not an issue," Mayor Ladewig explained. In other words, the trailers are uninhabitable and they have to go. Owners have the choice of removing material from the trailers before the trailers are towed to a dismantling and disposal site, or paying someone else to remove "non-demolition materials" and/or "mixed-goods like sofas and sweatshirts," according to Ladewig. "Unfortunately," he said, "there are considerable hazmat issues."

Block added that because of hazardous materials, removal of almost anything from the trailers would require a hazmat suit with proper breathing apparatus. "Cost is estimated between $2500-to-$3000 per trailer," Block explained, adding, "Owners wonder, 'How much is it worth?'"

Ladewig asked, "Is the public at large willing to pay?" Then concluded, "First we need a policy that's fair. Then we need assistance to pay for demolition and removal."

The Mayor, Council-members, Block and City attorney Terry Chiglo discussed the many thorny issues concerning condemnation that have arisen since the flood. As with the trailer park, there are contamination issues. The color of the damage tags attached to damaged structures, red, yellow, blue, green, is a factor in deciding to condemn. There are jurisdictional questions, questions of authority and liability between agencies and levels of government. And, of course, condition is a critical prerequisite to condemnation.

"Some are asking for condemnation who don't meet the level," said Block.

Chiglo advised the Council that the City could issue condemnation letters, but cautioned that specific "information", such as the detailed opinion of a structural engineer, should be contained in condemnation documents. "We need some of those elements," Chiglo said.

New Trailers

FEMA representative, Elizabeth Childs, reported that 15-winterized-trailers were on-site and being installed in the Brooklyn neighborhood. "Three families have been leased-in," she said. "We hope to support the City in any way we can." She explained that additional sites were being considered in the industrial park.

Block commended FEMA for its productivity and expressed appreciation for residents choosing to relocate to trailers in the City, investing in staying in Rushford. "Unfortunately, our true trailer park is unavailable for FEMA trailers. But with all the debris after 6-feet of water, anyone deciding to locate trailers there would have to check their sanity."

Old Levees

On Friday-the-14th, Army Corps of Engineers inspectors walked the Rush Creek dikes and prepared an assessment to rehabilitate the structures, thus ensuring the City will be protected during a 100-year flood. Most everyone knows now, the August flood surpassed 100-year levels. Some called it a 500-year flood. "The Corps lacks the information to tell them everything that happened to cause the flood," Block stated. "This assessment is just to help us get on with life. Will it? Could it happen again? The levee lasted 37-years. And it should be stable for a 100-year flood."

Other Business

• Mayor Ladewig expressed City gratitude for FEMA's flood relief efforts. "You folks worked hard and feverishly. Recruiting people to stay here. You can pass that on to the 16-other bureaucrats."

• The Council unanimously approved a third task order related to Rushford airport construction services to be provided by Mead and Hunt, Inc. for the sum of $12,858.

• Council member Laura Deering reported on the 15-September meeting to discuss long-term effects from the flood disaster. Deering explained that researchers have studied disaster survivors, "Three-years later, most of the people responded 'Yes' to the question of 'Are you better off now?'"

• Chiglo proposed language for a lease agreement to relocate a temporary dental office in the industrial park.

• Myron Schober reported on a preliminary meeting scheduled on Tuesday with the Minnesota Design Team. The non-profit MDT provides architects, urban planners and engineers to study redesign of Minnesota cities and towns.

• Members discussed details of the Rushford Disaster Relief Fund, specifically the City's authority to disburse funds, how long to make funds available and open meeting concerns. Chiglo advised that the City and appointed City-committees would be authorized to handle the money. "Our original intent is for money to go out as quickly as possible," Chiglo said. "We can make this as complicated as necessary."

• Prior to the meeting, resident Richard Holle distributed a letter to the Council and "fellow citizens" regarding property he had previously discussed selling to the City, as well as the proposed gift of a well, "no strings attached". Holle was not present to explain his concerns.

"I suggest we reserve judgment until we understand the underlying issues," said Ladewig.

Said Block, who has discussed zoning and infrastructure development complaints with Holle recently, "This is clearly about the purchase of the Himle property. First, it is fear-mongering, getting people all excited about nothing. Second, the land we purchased has been on the docket for 20-years. Third, it shows self-concern at this time, and it's in bad taste."

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