City looks ahead to challenges, opportunities

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Members of the Benson City Council and staff meet with representatives of the Swift County-Benson Health Services, Benson Public Schools and Swift County as they plan for the coming year’s challenges as well as look to what the future may bring. The meeting took place Saturday morning as part of the council’s annual planning retreat.

County, school and SCBHS give Benson council insight into what they face


Each year the Benson City Council takes a Friday evening and Saturday morning to sit down and do an informal working session about the issues facing the city today and in the future.

During its Saturday morning planning session, City Manager Rob Wolfington pointed out that Benson doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It has partners that it works with in a number of areas. He said Mayor Terri Collins suggested it would be a good idea to sit down with those partners and have each present an overview of their goals and objectives, and the challenges that lie ahead.

Joining the council for its working session were Swift County-Benson Health Services CEO Kurt Waldbillig, District 777 Supt. Dennis Laumeyer and Swift County Administrator Kelsey Baker.

To facilitate is working session, the council also brought in former Benson City Manager Bill Radio. Though retired now, after leaving Benson Radio served as the director of public relations for Missouri River Energy Services based in Sioux Falls, SD. He also served as a director on the American Public Power Association.


Wolfington started the conversation by pointing to the city’s accomplishments in the past year:
- It put together a proposal to submit to the state for a business looking at constructing a cheese plant in Minnesota.
- With little notice, it put together a team to fight the closure of Benson Power, LLC, then worked with Xcel Energy to develop a plan that would compensate the city more than $20 million for its loss.
- It assisted with the extensive Minnesota Department of Transportation’s street and sidewalk project in the summer of 2017.
- It successfully sought a small cities development grant to help fix up homes and business in Benson.
- It refinanced its electric bonds saving city taxpayers $900,000 with a lower interest rate. The refinancing was headed by Finance Director Glen Pederson, who was also named the state’s finance office of the year.
- It completed a cemetery expansion project adding 1,000 new gravesites.
 - The city planned and completed construction of a new police headquarters.

Among the disappoints for the year was the start of the process for closing Benson Power, getting turned down for a grant to upgrade the gravel road that runs along south side of the BNSF tracks to the east of downtown Benson, and not getting the old concrete elevator in downtown demolished. The city is still grieving the loss of Fibrominn (the original name of Benson Power,) Wolfington said. There were excellent friends that we had come to know, he said.

For its short-term goals, the city is looking at:
- Assisting with the construction of an assisted living-memory care facility in the community.
- Closing out the $20 million grant that is scheduled to come from Xcel Energy starting with a $4 million payment by June 30. Payments of $6 million each are expected in 2019 and 2020, with a final $3 million payment in 2021.
- Complete infrastructure improvements on McKinney and Wisconsin Avenues, and upgrade 19th Street North from the courthouse to the front door of the Senior High School.
- Work to bring new industry to the community.
- Improve Benson’s water quality. It currently has too much iron in some of its water service areas.
- Develop a comprehensive land plan for the community.

In the long term, the city is looking at:
- Assisting SCBHS with a transition adapting its operations to the future of medicine.
- Address infrastructure needs.
- Consider a new city hall project that involves the Benson Armory renovation or a new facility.
- Attract and retain key private sector assets.
- Improving the community’s housing stock.
- Address blight issues.
- Key city staff will be retiring in the next few years – develop a plan for a smooth transition.
- Replace lost tax base....

Closing on the Xcel Energy grant

While the Minnesota Legislature and the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission have both given their approval to the deal that would shut down Benson Power and provide the city with $20 million, there still be efforts underway that could derail the deal.

A lawsuit by truckers to stop the plant’s closing is to be heard this week. While the judge could throw the case, he could also order an Environmental Impact Statement be done possibly delaying the payments to Benson.  

While the PUC has approved the Xcel-Benson Power deal, the comment period under which objections can be filed has yet to end.

Finally, with the Legislature convening in February efforts to undo the deal could emerge. The city will be keeping a close watch for any legislation that would be detrimental to the deal that has been struck.

Swift County-Benson Health Services

Waldbillig told the city that the short-term goal is “to keep our head above water” after several years of losing revenue on operations.

However, SCBHS now has a full compliment of medical providers, has cut the Counseling Associates and Home Health programs that were contributing nearly $800,000 in losses annually, reduced the use of costly locum tenens doctors, and is getting closer to finalizing the assisted living-memory care facility financing package. It has also taken over the operations of the medical clinic and converted it to a Rural Health Clinic, improving the reimbursements it gets.

Another improve SCBHS has implemented is its walk-in clinic where people can come in and be seen quickly without having to make an appointment. With the influenza hitting the area hard, he said that there were 15 to 20 people in the walk-in clinic waiting to be seen late Friday afternoon.

Though ground won’t be able to be broken for the facility under late winter or early spring, construction of the walls by Fullerton Building Systems in Worthington can take place during the winter months. The panels it builds inside include the insulation, windows, and exterior sheeting. It then brings them in and sets them in place when the foundation is complete.

There are currently 36 residents in Scofield Place with 52 people on a waiting list for the new facility, Waldbillig said. The new facility would employ about 30 people....

Swift County

Swift County is working to complete its $5.1 million bonding project that saw major renovations to the courthouse and Countryside Public Health buildings, Baker said. At the same time, it is looking forward to the next phase of its building and renovation projects that would involve the Law Enforcement Center and jail, Human Services and 6W Community Corrections.

The county is also working a succession planning as it faces losing up to 12 employees in the next three years.  Eight of those employees could retire at any time, Baker said. It is cross-training staff so people can fill in for a variety of jobs. It is not easy to attract and keep employees these days.

As the county plans for the future, it also has to look at how much of its interactions with the public will be done electronically over the internet and what that means for its facilities. It may mean that more work can be shared between counties.

The county is looking how it can best assist with economic development in the county. That economic development means facilitating the efforts of business that are looking at locating or expanding here, as well as helping out workforce housing.

Swift County also continues to work with CoreCivic, the owner of the Appleton prison, on getting the facility back in use.

Benson Public Schools

The collaborative effort that has seen Benson Public Schools housing a daycare facility for 16 infants and 28 toddlers has been very successful, Supt. Laumeyer said. In fact, there is now a waiting list for toddlers. There was obviously a need for the facility, he said.

To help it plan for renovation of its buildings, the school board is seeking volunteers for four committees consisting of school staff, landowners and farmers, business owners and community members at large. They have to be able to meet three consecutive nights – Monday, Jan. 29; Tuesday, Jan. 30; and Wednesday, Jan. 31. They also have to be residents of District 777.

The committees will start by looking at the costs of renovating the Junior High Auditorium, which is out of use since a chunk of the ceiling fell into the seating area last April. The project could cost between $2.2 million to more than $5 million.

Laumeyer said the district faces extensive work just maintaining its facilities. The cost of replacing the age HVAC systems is near $18 million.

The school board hopes to have a plan put together for a voter referendum in early May.

With SCBHS dropping Counseling Associates, the district is now working with Woodland Centers to provide expanded in-house services for students.

Work is progressing on plans for renovating the north end of the Civic Center to be used for gymnastics and other BHS sports. It is estimated the cost of renovating the 13,000-square-foot area would be near $750,000 for a very basic project. Laumeyer said the school district is also interested developing a facility that can be used by the general public....


For more on this story, and to keep up on all the latest news, subscribe to the Swift County Monitor-News print edition or our PDF internet edition. Call 320-843-4111 and you can get all the local news and sports delivered to you!

Pictured: Members of the Benson City Council and staff meet with representatives of the Swift County-Benson Health Services, Benson Public Schools and Swift County as they plan for the coming year’s challenges as well as look to what the future may bring. The meeting took place Saturday morning as part of the council’s annual planning retreat.

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