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Sarah Schmidt gets ready to participate in the weight throw during her final year.

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Golfers enjoy open golf at Litchfield Golf Course

Minnesota golf fans received good news when Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order April 17 allowing golf courses around the state to open for business.

In Litchfield, the news arrived so suddenly the city was unable to prepare and gather staff to take tee times, so the administration opened Litchfield Golf Course and let people play for free.

“It was just park and wait your turn and play,” City Administrator Dave Cziok said.

April 18 was the first official day that courses could be open, and many were out to enjoy the free golf. Among them was Chris Woelfel of LItchfield. Although he’s not an avid golfer, he likes to get out once in a while and couldn’t pass up the opportunity for some exercise outside his home.

“Something to do, freedom,” Woelfel said of golf courses opening. “I would say it’s something to do above all else.”

During the Litchfield City Council meeting April 20, Cziok said staff was developing a method to collect green fees, likely an open window at the clubhouse, and that plan was implemented by the middle of this past week.

But Cziok cautioned the City Council and the public that it would be far from “business as usual” at the golf course this summer. Tournaments, which are a major source of revenue, have been canceled for the duration of the summer.

The coronavirus is the latest significant hurdle for Litchfield Golf Course. The nonprofit Golf Club Inc. is still searching for a new tenant for the clubhouse dining area and bar, while renovation of the bar area and patio — improvements approved by the City Council two weeks ago — are taking place.

But after weeks of being cooped up by the coronavirus and stay-home orders, there were plenty of golfers interested in hitting the course when the governor gave the OK. Among those out April 18 were Litchfield High School sophomores Wyatt Larson and Dominic Dietel. Both felt the same as Woelfel — that having golf courses open gives people one more option for something to do outside.

“I feel like it’s more of a freedom that we have now,” Larson said. “Instead of staying inside and playing video games, we can come out and exercise in nice weather.”

“It just adds some spice to what we can do with everything closed,” Dietel added.

Larson and Dietel also don’t play much golf in their free time, so this has given them the chance to work on their game that they wouldn’t have previously done. But they also held out hope that something like this could be the start of slowly opening other businesses. For now, all they could do is wait and stay safe.

Golf wasn’t the only thing Gov. Walz’s executive order changed. It also reopened bait shops for live bait, outdoor shooting ranges and marina services for anglers.

Although golf has returned to Minnesota, there are guidelines for course managers and golfers to follow: Tee times must be staggered and golfers must stay 6 feet away from each other. There will be a lot more golf carts used as there is no sharing carts except with household members. Carts must also be cleaned and sanitized regularly. Rakes, ball washers, water coolers and anything someone might touch must be removed. Cup sleeves must be raised so balls bounce off rather than dropping in, preventing people from having to touch the flag or cup.

Now that the course is open, Litchfield needs workers to make sure that these guidelines are being enforced. And free golf couldn’t last forever. Cziok he expeceted the course would be back to its normal routine by midweek.

“It’s going to be busy … with the nice weather we have forecasted,” he said. “We’re expecting quite a bit of play Wednesday before picking up again this weekend.”

Litchfield property values rise 15 percent

Home values in Litchfield jumped by an average of 15 percent for 2020, a rate that the Meeker County Assessor’s Office said gets the city to state mandated valuation levels.

The property value discussion came as part of the Litchfield City Council’s board of review function at the beginning of the April 20 regular meeting.

County Assessor Lee Schroeder and appraiser Travis Scoblic presented their property valuation recommendations and explanation of the increase.

Litchfield’s property valuation average stood at about 82 percent of the average sale price of homes during 2019, Schroeder said. Meanwhile, the state requires that values be between 90 and 105 percent of property sale prices.

The ratios were based on 60 qualified sales in the city in 2019, according to Scoblic.

Increasing property values by 15 percent pushed the average to about 95 percent, Scoblic said, which was an acceptable level according to state requirements.

“There were some pretty decent increases depending on how much your property was valued at to begin with,” Schroeder said.

Councilor Vern Loch Jr. wondered how the city’s average valuation could have been only 84 percent of the average sales price, and whether it had anything to do with the city’s “need for housing.”

“Everything is based on sales,” Schroeder said, adding that the assessor’s office performed a study at the end of last year to help determine what created the gap. That study had not been done for a couple of years, he said, because the city’s valuations were at 99 percent of sales prices, “which is about what you want.”

Litchfield was not the only municipality in Meeker County to experience a property value bump. Eden Valley saw its average valuation jump by 35 percent, and Grove City’s average rose 30 percent. Dassel saw a 20 percent increase, while Kingston saw a 15 percent bump. Cosmos and Darwin both saw average increases of 10 percent.

Nine Litchfield property owners challenged their valuations, and all were brought to the City Council’s board of review. The properties and valuations:

  • Dave and Misty Marotte, 830 Cottonwood Ave., saw their value rise from 272,700 in 2019 to $300,200 in 2020.
  • Steve and Mary Black, 813 S. Hubbard Ave., saw a jump from $208,700 to $248,600.
  • Ronald and Tammy Schmitz, 713 S. Miller Ave., property increased from $112,800 to $141,600.
  • Alex and Arlene Howanski, 1002 S. Holcombe Ave., $106,200 to $114,300.
  • Gaylen Heacock, 1009 S. Marshall Ave., $272,400 to $301,500.
  • Wesley and Lynette Holmgren, 20 W. Ninth St., $439,200 to $484,300.
  • Kelly and Janet Mankenberg, 416 N. Swift Ave., $116,000 to $125,700.
  • Ricky Gish, 339 E. Second St., $77,100 to $84,600.
  • Lake Ripley Properties, 1205 S. Sibley Ave., $1,057,800 stayed the same.

Scoblic said he had been to all but two of the nine properties within the past five years The two he had not seen, both of which had higher than 15 percent increase in valuation, had improvements since the last time he reviewed them.

The assessor’s office recommended none of the valuations be changed, and the City Council approved them as presented. The assessments now will go to the Meeker County Board for final review and approval in June.

City audit offers optimism

Litchfield’s financial position is strong as it and communities across the country face the uncertainty of a pandemic-created recession.

That was the assessment of Justin McGraw of Conway Deuth and Schmiesing, who presented the city’s audit report during the City Council meeting April 20.

The city has “really good fiscal policy that put you in the position you are in today,” McGraw said. “You’re set up to the point where you’re not scrambling to figure out how you’re going to pay your light bill.”

The city’s electric fund saw the largest increase in net position over the previous year among its proprietary funds — more than $1.6 million — due to an increase in service charges and contingency payments it received from Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, according to the audit. The sewer fund also saw an $88,764 increase due to service charge increases, but its operating income declined due to unbudgeted depreciation expense.

The general fund, the main operating fund of the city, had a balance of $1.501 million, up slightly from 2018’s $1.463 million.

Those fund balances were a good sign, especially with current economic uncertainty, McGraw said. The city’s total fund balance of $3.7 million, he said, gives it about a nine-month cushion when compared to 2019 expenditures.

That’s important as the city waits to see how great an impact the COVID-19 pandemic has on residents’ ability to pay property tax and whether the state Legislature alters its local government aid distribution.

“If you’re not bringing cash in from property tax or LGA, you may start to feel it there in the long run … depending on how long the COVID crisis goes on,” McGraw said.

In the short term, the more likely impact on the city’s financial picture will be residents’ ability to pay utility bills. “The utility funds will be the best indicator of people’s inability to pay,” McGraw said.

But with the city’s fund balance growing at a steady, planned rate, it still is in good position “if the revenues started to dry up.”

“We usually recommend six months as a minimum (balance), and you’re three months past that,” McGraw said. “If (there were) significant delays in LGA or others (payments), you have about nine months of wiggle room.”

That assessment was greeted with optimism by Councilor Ron Dingmann, who highlighted that the nine months’ cushion was if there were no revenue coming in to the city.

“We’re going to have some revenue coming in,” Dingmann said. “We can assure citizens we’re in pretty good shape.”