Top stories of 2013 - South-West Review

A look back at the hot topics of the past year

Gradual healing in the economy over the past year eased the nearly half-decade financial strain on local communities and allowed them to look to the future once again by hiring new staff, adding new sections to city code and planning large-scale projects.

From ordinances about feeding animals to designs for multi-million construction initiatives, here are some of the key issues covered by the South-West Review through 2013.

WSP hits restart on city hall project

The West St. Paul City Council temporarily backed down from one of its biggest projects in the past year after frustration with contractors designing a new city hall led the council to fire the companies and call for a fresh start.

The council started talking about replacing or remodeling city hall in 2011 after a report identified numerous deficiencies in the size, condition and features of the current facility. The council hired Inver Grove Heights-based Amcon Construction later that year to serve as project manager and hired Minneapolis-based Collaborative Design Group in early 2012 to design the new structure.

The project went through a number of twists, turns and revisions before the council seemed to settle on expanding the current building as a way to meet the needs while keeping costs as low as possible. In April 2013 the council requested Amcon provide one more cost comparison between remodeling city hall and replacing it and received a tentative estimate from the contractor suggesting an entirely new facility would be only $1.8 million more, sparking new interest in that option. A week later, however, Amcon returned with a revised estimate that said the difference would be closer to $2.7 million.

The faulty estimate, along with a number of invoices that council members said were big on costs and lacking in detail, prompted the council to terminate its contracts with Amcon and CDG in its May 13 meeting, effectively killing the project for the time being.

James O'Shea, a principal with CDG, defended his company at the time, saying the council continually moved the goalposts without giving his design team time to adjust accordingly.

"Rather than saying, 'Let's sit down and figure this out,' they just said "Let's fire them," O'Shea said.

However, Council member Jenny Halverson said based on the council's experience with the contractors she believed continuing the relationship would only lead to disappointment with the final product.

"It's just red flag, red flag, red flag and I'm afraid that 20, 30 years down the road we're going to be really sorry," Halverson said.

The council declared a four-month moratorium on revisiting the city hall project after terminating the contracts, in order to leave time to focus on hiring a new city manager and coordinating the Robert Street renovation project.

IGH OK with chicken and deer

At first blush it might seem ordinances spelling out rules for woodland and barnyard creatures would be of little interest in a major Twin Cities suburb, but in fact new ordinances introduced in 2013 that allow Inver Grove Heights residents to keep chickens and provide food for wild deer stirred some hearty debates at city hall.

The city council passed the pair of ordinances in its May 13 meeting. The chicken ordinance allows residents in residentially zones areas to keep up to six hens with the consent of neighbors and a $25 license from the city, while the deer ordinance laid out acceptable regions of the city where residents can attract deer with grain and seed for viewing purposes.

The deer ordinance originally began with an all-out ban on feeding deer in the city in order to reduce nuisance garden browsing and deer vs. car accidents in the city. However, many residents objected to the ban, saying the opportunity to interact with wildlife was a distinct benefit of living in a semi-rural suburb like Inver Grove Heights.

In the end, the council voted to restrict deer feeding to the same rural zones already approved for bow hunting, as well as a stretch along the Mississippi River. Residents in more residential areas received additional guidelines for feeding birds to avoid inadvertently attracting deer.

SSP calls for levee repairs

High water was the least of the concern for South St. Paul officials exploring upgrades to the city's floodwall this past year.

The city council moved to use a combination of grants and local funds to repair the city's levee after a 2011 study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined the nearly 50-year-old structure that lines the city's industrial park north of I-494 was in serious need of repairs.

However, the results of the city's initial call for bids on the repair left the staff and council reeling: only one contractor submitted a bid, and the amount was more than twice the $1.5 million cost estimated by the city's engineering consultant. The council rejected the $3.5 million bid in its May 20 meeting.

After meeting with a number of contractors, city staff determined the reason for the poor response was that many would-be bidders were leery of putting price tag on the work because of the lack of detail in the bid request. In response, the council voted to spend $10,000 on additional testing and measurements to further flesh out the specifications.

That investment seemed to pay off, as the council was able to award the bid on its second try to Meyers Contracting in the amount of $2.2 million in its Oct. 7 meeting. The delay in hiring a contractor pushed back the estimated completion of the project, which is now anticipated to wrap up this fall.

While the awarded bid was still higher than the original estimate, City Engineer John Sachi said giving up on the levee projects because of expense was not an option.

"These repairs aren't going away," Sachi said. "We're going to have to do them sooner or later."

South St. Paul Police and residents remembered fallen officer Leo Pavlak on the  80th anniversary of his death Aug. 30.

80th anniversary of SSP  officer's death

Some tragedies people try to forget, while others are important to remember for generations afterward.

This past year the South St. Paul Police Department honored fallen officer Leo Pavlak, who was killed in the line of duty Aug. 30, 1933. Pavlak was gunned down by machine-gun wielding gangsters in front of the post office as he escorted a pair of bank messengers carrying $30,000 from the train to the Stockyards National Bank. A second officer, John Yeamen, was also shot in the incident and seriously injured.

Pavlak was 38 at the time and had joined the police department just four months prior. He left behind a wife and two children.

South St. Paul Police Chief Bill Messerich said it's important to remember Pavlak 80 years later not only to honor his sacrifice, but to understand the risk all officers undertake every time they go to work. The South St. Paul Police Department still displays the front page of the South St. Paul Daily Reporter where the shootout was first reported, and Messerich keeps a Thompson submachine gun of the type used in the incident on display in his office.

WSP hires city manager

After nearly two years without a permanent tenant in West St. Paul's top job, the city council finally approved the hiring a new city manager in July.

Matt Fulton, a former city manager for Coon Rapids and New Brighton, became the first person to fill the city's highest-paid position since former manager John Remkus took advantage of an early retirement program offered by the city in 2011. Assistant City Manager Sherrie Le served as acting city manager in the interim.

The city had tried to fill the position once before in October 2012 using a search team of city council members. In that effort the city nearly hired Craig Clark, city administrator of Worthington, but the offer fell apart during salary negotiations. Following that disappointment, the city hired a search firm to assemble and winnow a long list of candidates, finally resulting in Fulton's hiring. Fulton officially assumed duties Aug. 5.

Somerset celebrates 25 years of SPIFF

While provisions for schools have ebbed and flowed over the last two decades, relationships are one resource of which Somerset Elementary in Mendota Heights has always had a strong supply.

On Nov. 22, the school kicked off of the 25th year of its Special Pals in Fun Friendships program, which pairs second-grade students with older volunteers who act as friends and mentors throughout the school year (and well beyond, in many cases).

The 99 students entering SPIFF in 2013 made it the biggest year for the program so far. Those students will join the 1,700 who have passed through the program over the past 25 years.

Alex Messicci, the teacher who started and still coordinates SPIFF, explained at the kick-off celebration in November that the volunteer pals not only gives students an additional ally at the outset of their school career, but also provides powerful educational opportunities as the students get to know the volunteers.

"It's fun for the children, but it also gives them experience with someone from another generation," Messicci said. "It's like real-life history."

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