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Traffic on Sibley Avenue North in downtown Litchfield will be rerouted as part of U.S. Highway 12 reconstruction in spring and summer 2020. The age and makeup of many of the Main Street buildings creates special concerns for the project.

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Litchfield School Board focuses referendum approach

Litchfield School Board settled on details of a fall operating and bond referendum during a meeting Monday, even as some members speculated about the city's commitment to moving forward on a wellness center.

The School Board plans to place three questions on the ballot in November. Those questions will be submitted by Aug. 1 to the Minnesota Department of Education for review and comment before being placed on the ballot.

One of the questions will deal with the operating levy, additional funding for classroom instruction. Meanwhile two questions will focus on bonding, which involves building construction or improvements.

Those questions will seek:

  • An increase in the operating levy. The board decided to ask for a $625 per pupil increase, which will increase property taxes by $142 per year for a home valued at $137,000.
  • Funding for building additions and improvements. For this, the board asks for $32.995 million, which will increase taxes by $128 per year for homes valued at $137,000.
  • $11.43 million to fund construction of new pool facilities, create and improve a weight room and cardio spaces and soccer fields, said Jesse Johnson, a business manager for the Litchfield School District. As a result, this will increase taxes by $67 per year for homes valued at $137,000.

Board members questioned the commitment of the Litchfield City Council to building a gym next to the school's swimming pool, which would be two separate spaces divided by a wall.

“We have to go with what we’ve done as a district and what has been identified as the district’s needs, and (we) made a decision based on that,” Johnson said. “With the hope that we can have a conversation with the city about (their part). I don’t think it helps our cause to speak negatively, even though we are frustrated. But we got to stay positive and keep working hard to get this done.”

The city is reluctant to give the School Board a definitive answer about its contribution plans, and the nature of their cooperation with the school district, board member Greg Mathews said.

“We are sitting here right now, (and) we are in the 11th hour,” Mathews said. “We’ve got to have some answers. We’ve got to have some commitment about what they’re going to do. So we can go to the public and say, ‘Look we’re asking for $11 (million) to build an aquatic center’ … and whatever the city has agreed to do if their referendum passes. I want the city to get off and make some commitments.”

Board member Dave Huhner asked Johnson if, should the third referendum question be approved, the School District is required to build a pool, to which Johnson answered, "No."

“If I’m going to vote for that pool, it is a huge leap of faith that the city is going to follow through on what they’ve talked about with us the entire time, which is the (recreational) center,” Huhner said.

“I really want to encourage us to just step back a little bit here,” Superintendent Beckie Simenson said. “It may feel (like) us against them, but really it’s not. I’m here to tell you that it is not because if you think that a center, and a walking path, and a warm water pool, and they’re talking also about increased room for whether it’s parties or whatever the case maybe — they’re not trying to take the cheaper route. I think that the vision they have is to do something with us on that.”

The past few meetings helped crystallize what the district's referendum will look like, Simenson said.

"(The board) knows through our survey, what our voters (and) stakeholders have asked for," she said. "But we also know from the city that we're trying to do some pretty dynamic things for the community as a whole."

Based on discussions with state Rep. Dean L. Urdahl, R-Acton Township, and the city, the school board may ask for bond money from the state Legislature, Simenson said.

"What that amount will be is not completely certain at this time," she said. "But we'd like to continue to work together collaboratively to get something that is going to benefit the students and the community as a whole."

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Hands-free law's goal: Eliminate distracted driving

As a milk hauler for First District Association, Patrick Riley has witnessed his share of bad driving habits.

That’s why he welcomes Minnesota’s new hands-free driving law.

“I have daily near misses where someone starts to drift into my lane and when they get close, you can plainly see the phone in their hand,” Riley said. “Last summer I had to take the shoulder to avoid one car. It’s both sexes, all ages.”

Beginning Aug. 1, drivers will receive a moving violation if found holding their mobile phone or any other handheld devices while driving, as a result of a law passed by the Minnesota Legislature earlier this year.

Violation of the new law will result in a petty misdemeanor and a $50 fine including court fees for the first offense. For a second and subsequent violations, drivers will be fined $275 each, plus court fees. Drivers may use their cellphone to make calls, text, listen to music or podcasts and GPS, only by voice commands or single-touch activation.

“The driving force of this law is the reduction of distracted driving-related crashes, specifically fatal crashes,” Meeker County Sheriff Brian Cruze said. “Studies show a reduction (in accidents) when hands-free laws are enacted. So our focus will be to first educate, then enforce accordingly. (Cellphones) have become a major distraction, thus the law change. But we can’t forget about other distractions. We want people to be safe as they travel down the road, and we want people to feel safe and confident other drivers are doing the same.”

Currently, it is difficult for police officers to determine whether drivers are texting or using their GPS, but the new law will make it easier to stop drivers simply because they’re holding their cellphones in their hand, Cruze said.

“I don’t think the new law will create any new challenges for enforcement,” he said. “In some respects, it is easier and more straight forward. Currently, you can’t text and drive, but you can make a phone call with the device in your hands. That, at times, is a little more difficult to determine, ‘Are they texting or are they calling?’ Under the new law, it simply cannot be in your hands. (Officers) don’t have to try to figure out if (drivers) are texting or calling.”

Distracted driving or inattentive driving played a role in one-in-five accidents in Minnesota between 2013-2017, which resulted in an average 53 deaths and 216 serious injuries each year, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Office of Traffic Safety.

The desire for individual freedom and personal rights may help explain why people like to use their phone while driving, Rep. Dean Urdahl said.

“But that only goes so far,” Urdahl said. “You don’t have the personal right to hit my car while I’m driving. That could be the offshoot of texting or distracted driving. Distracted driving is a major problem. It’s one of the major causes of accidents in Minnesota. I’m sure there’ll be an increase in citations … there’ll still be people trying to get away with texting.”

The number of drivers using their phones might not decline quickly, but the new law should help deter driving distracted, Ryan Barron of Litchfield said.

“I think it’s a great law,” Barron said. “(I’m) so annoyed when I see people looking down at (their) phone and not looking up at the road. I have Bluetooth in my car, but my husband does not. We talked about either investing in Bluetooth for him or simply recognizing the fact that he may not answer his phone when he’s driving his vehicle.”

People will have to prepare their devices for things such as GPS or music and place them on a phone holder attached to their vehicle before driving. In cases where a phone malfunctions, drivers will have to pull to the side of the road safely before attempting to resolve the problem.

“There will be a period of adjustment as people adjust to the new law,” Urdahl said. “It’s important to the safety of the people of Minnesota that we limit distractions. That’s what we’re doing with this.”