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Snakes alive! W’bago council has reptile visitors at meeting

By Staff | Sep 18, 2016

“That was a first.”

It was a fitting remark at Tuesday’s Winnebago City Council meeting, when town resident?Rhonda Johnson presented no more than three dead snakes, on display through a trio of glass jars, to the unsuspecting council members.

Johnson showcased the deceased reptiles in a request to have the property across from her First Avenue home be cleaned up. That property, which city administrator Chris Ziegler identified as tax forfeited and “owned by the county,” may be infested by the snakes that she has found and sometimes exterminated in her yard.

Ziegler, with support from the council and Mayor Jeremiah Schutt, encouraged Johnson they would help her reach out to the county commissioners about resolving the issue.

And, actually, the surprise snake visitors marked just one of several firsts for the council at Tuesday’s session. From a look at new plans for a city playground makeover to a long-awaited step forward in talks with Zierke Built Manufacturing (ZBM), the council members had themselves a full plate of fresh decisions.

With a public audience of nearly 20 people, Amber Patten and Jessi Sturtz, of the Winnebago Kids Fund, proposed renovations roughly $44,000 worth of them to the town’s West and East City Parks, aiming for final approval of plans in November and construction by spring.

“You can add or change anything you want,” Patten said, offering diagrams of proposed playground additions, which would come from the recreation company Miracle. “We just believe it’s time we put money back in for our kids.”

West City Park plans, tentatively totaling $22,846, include installation of a new freestanding slide, swing sets and a zip line, while the east side proposals, costing an estimated $19,810, include construction of an entirely new playground set.

And funding, according to Patten and Sturtz, is not something the Kids Fund is overly concerned about.

“We’ll do whatever we have to do,” Patten said.

For starters, the duo kicked off fundraising Wednesday and said both the Community Trust Fund and the Parks and Rec Committee have recommended allocating $10,000 be given toward the park project.

Additional funds could also be found through local business donations, and when it comes time for finalization of plans, Sturtz said the Kids Fund hopes to collaborate with a Mankato university’s construction management program for oversight of installation.

The council had no problem getting behind the playground project, either.

“I think it’s well worth the time and money,” said council member Scott Robertson. “We have the money to spend for something constructive.”

And if money eventually becomes an issue, Robertson and fellow council member Rick Johnson encouraged outreach to “big-ticket” companies, such as Cargill, for additional support.

Speaking of big-ticket companies, the council had another prominent project to tackle in considering yet again a request by Zierke Built Manufacturing for a release letter, which would allow the local business to obtain state funds in its planned relocation to Fairmont.

Thanks to a recommendation by the Winnebago Economic Development Authority and some added discussion with ZBM’s Greg and Kyle Zierke, the council finally signed off on issuing the letter Tuesday, opting to grant the company’s request without conditions.

“It’s a tough pill to swallow, and I?hate to see them move,” Robertson said. “But I don’t think we’re in a position to stop them from bettering themselves.”

The City Council had once considered issuing the letter with specific conditions, namely ones that would expedite a sale of ZBM properties to Winnebago in the event a private buyer does not surface. And even in their move out of town, the Zierkes said their hope is to help the city.

“We don’t want to leave Winnebago, but in a business sense, (staying) doesn’t make much sense for us,” said Kyle, joined by Greg at the meeting. “And the bottom line is we want to get someone in there, too.”

If, at some point, the city is in a position to purchase Zierke’s buildings, Greg said there is nothing that would stop the two sides from working on a deal.

“Everything’s negotiable,” he said. “If we can’t sell it before we move, a realtor will try to sell it for us.”

Without comment, Rick Johnson opposed the issuing of a release letter, but a 3-1 vote secured the council’s decision, pushing the impending departure of ZBM from Winnebago to the next level for the first time in months.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the City Council also:

Proposed a preliminary 2017 tax levy of $623,891, an increase of $79,445, or 14.59 percent, from 2016.

“The preliminary number will give us an opportunity to address our needs and then prioritize down from there into the three-to-five-percent area,” Ziegler said.

One item that will need addressing, Ziegler added, is health insurance. Since rates “took a big jump,” he expects that area to be addressed, along with several tax-forfeited homes “that will need to be cleaned up and demolished,” perhaps over the course of several years.

Discussed recommendations by the Utility Committee on potential Northwest Area Street Project plans, including the width of reconstructed streets in town.

“Why are we having to have wider streets?” council member Dean Johnson asked, referencing the committee’s apparent preference for 40-foot-wide streets. “Is it a good use of our resources, especially on streets people don’t even drive on?”

Rick Johnson disagreed, saying the project is not only for improving streets now but improving them for “the future” of potential traffic, which may dictate wider roads anyway.

Ordered the abatement of nuisance conditions at 315 Fourth St. NW, a property that had been inspected on three occasions by police since May.

Approved recommendations of Ashley Bleess for the replacement of filters and chemical controllers in the Winnebago pool.

“Our pool chemical controllers are about 20 years old,” Bleess said, “and they probably should have failed long ago.”

Approved library director Heidi Schutt’s request to attend the Minnesota Library Association Conference in Duluth, where she anticipates leading a “Small and Rural Library” roundtable.

Approved a handler contract for Winnebago Public Safety’s K-9, known as Jack, identifying police chief Eric Olson as the dog’s handler.