Long-term planning, regional transportation projects and public school leadership changes, among other developments, were the 2012 news highlights.
As the Money magazine review of the city noted in its biennial “Best Places to Live” ranking, little has changed in Eden Prairie since its No. 1 finish in 2010.
If not much has changed, then at least some projects are continuing – such as the Southwest Light Rail Line planning – while other projects are looking toward the future – such as the establishment of franchise fees for roadway maintenance.
Some of the big stories from 2012 are highlighed in this edition.
School district changes
It was a big year for the Eden Prairie School District.
It was not long after the two newly elected Eden Prairie School Board members, Karla Bratrud and Dave Espe, took their seats in January that district leaders were changing course after a difficult elementary school redistricting process the preceding year.
The school board’s search for a new superintendent began in earnest, following Melissa Krull’s “mutual separation” with the school board in fall 2011. The reputable Shakopee School District veteran Jon McBroom had come out of retirement to fill in until a replacement was found.
His role was not merely a stopgap but a reassessment and pivot point that primed budgeting decisions, strategic planning, community outreach and relationship building in the school district.
The school board had a demographer analyze long-term trends to explain enrollment changes. The district initiated meetings with parents who pulled their children out of the school district to hear their concerns and input.
Administrators and board members also oriented themselves for long-term strategic planning that began fall 2012, reviewed several budget forecasts and reaffirmed the K-6 decision.
This was before the Little Falls Superintendent Curt Tryggestad took over as the Eden Prairie schools chief July 1.
After that, the school board switched its governance structure from Coherent Governance to Policy Governance, meant to articulate the superintendent and school board’s relationship, among other things.
The policy shift paralleled the strategic planning process that began in the fall. Several volunteer and recruited community members, guided by a consultant and administrators, will craft a long-term vision for the district before the school board reviews it and provides its input and approval.
Another large change in the fall included the first steps of a long-term technology rollout that will put tablet computers or laptops in the hands of all district students within the next few years.
Going into 2013, the district is looking at a healthy budget balance, seemingly rebounding relationships and opportunity for long-term, proactive planning.
Third in the Money
Eden Prairie continued to get high marks in a national review of the most live-able communities, conducted by Money magazine and CNN.
Coming off its No. 1 ranking for the 2010-2011 “Best Places to Live” list, the city earned third place for 2012-2013.
There were five Minnesota cities that placed in the top 25, but Eden Prairie was the only one in the top 10. Carmel, Ind., placed first.
An excerpt from money.cnn.com:
“Not much has changed in Eden Prairie lately, and that’s a good thing. It still has the heady combination of terrific employment prospects, natural beauty, and a well-educated workforce. It’s also kept a healthy budget surplus of 2 percent the past two years. … ”
The other cities representing the Land of 10,000 Lakes in the top 25 were Woodbury (11th), Eagan (14th), Lakeville (19th) and Maple Grove (22nd).
“It has everything we’re looking for,” said Zain Asher of Money magazine. She was a contact working with Eden Prairie in the ranking process.
The magazine was looking for affordability, great schools, overall safety of the city, diversity, the city’s overall bond rating, the number of jobs in the city, commute times and similar data, Asher said.
The magazine initially considers 750 cities with a population of 50,000-300,000 people, she said.
Since Eden Prairie had not changed much since the first place ranking in 2010, the third place shift occurred “primarily because there are a couple of other towns that dramatically improved in that time,” Asher said.
Asher said she does not think there is a relationship between how many magazines are sold and the “Best Places to Live” ranking, but the intent is to market these cities to the Money magazine readers, she said.
“I mean, this is something that we put a lot of time and energy into,” Asher said. “It’s not just commercial for us. … It’s not that we’re sort of marketing to everyone. It’s really for our readers.”
City Manager Rick Getschow said it was unlikely the city would place first twice in a row. He reiterated the magazine’s point that a lack of city changes is a good thing.
“I think it’s an honor for us to be in the top ten again. … We’re part of an exceptional quality of life here in this state,” he said.
Years in the making, the Highway 169 and Interstate 494 interchange project was completed on schedule in 2012.
Construction began in late 2010, and it was completed near its November 2012 target. The majority of the interchange roadways opened Wednesday, Nov. 21, with some grading and road striping left to complete in early December.
The nearly two-year, $125 million project was meant to bring more safety and less congestion to the high-traffic interchange in the Eden Prairie, Bloomington and Edina area.
“It will definitely improve safety in that corridor and should make it easier for people to reduce time getting through that stretch as well,” said Kirsten Klein of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
The interchange has six flyover freeway ramp connections rather than standard cloverleaf design, and several roundabouts to create a circulating network of frontage roads will take getting used to.
By federal standards, eight ramps are usually required for this type of interchange, but MnDOT made an agreement with the Federal Highway Administration to create six ramps and make adjustments later if needed, including adding two more ramps.
That move cut about $20 million from the initial cost, allowing it go ahead. The project was originally scheduled for 2004, but lacked adequate funding.
Klein said since the Federal Highway Administration will be monitoring traffic levels, accident numbers and trip times now that the project is complete.
Gov. Mark Dayton didn’t exactly make the wishes of Southwest Light Rail Transit supporters come true but did give them a consolation prize of $2 million.
Dayton had originally requested $25 million from the Legislature for the Southwest Light Rail Line, which would run from Eden Prairie through Hopkins, Minnetonka and St. Louis Park en route to downtown Minneapolis, where it would tie into the Central Corridor line to St. Paul already under construction.
The Legislature did not provide the $25 million request for the Southwest Light Rail Transit line but did appropriate money for competitive Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development grants.
A Southwest Light Rail Transit project request for $14 million from DEED tied for the lowest score the department gave for department business development grant requests. Nonetheless, Dayton awarded the $2 million out of a total of $47.5 million legislators provided for discretionary grants during the last legislative session.
The release of a planning document in October refueled controversy over a proposed freight rail reroute plan associated with the Southwest Light Rail Transit Line – a dispute some light rail supporters fear could derail the light rail line.
A Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the light rail line rejects the idea of operating freight trains alongside light rail trains in the Kenilworth Corridor, which runs east of Cedar Lake, and along the proposed light rail route in St. Louis Park immediately south of Hwy. 7. The document instead supports a plan to run the freight trains on the Minneapolis, Northfield and Southern line running mainly north and south through St. Louis Park.
Advocacy group Safety in the Park and several council members have expressed concern about running more freight trains along the MNS line, which travels near St. Louis Park High School and near a number of homes and businesses. Safety in the Park has argued light rail and freight trains should be collocated in the same corridor.
The Draft Environmental Impact Statement mainly rejects the collocation alternative because the document says it would require part of the of Cedar Lake Park property and would fail to provide a direct connection between the MNS line and Canadian Pacific’s Bass Lake Spur.
The document also asserts that collocation would lead to lengthy traffic queues that would offset the benefits of transit, diminish development potential, force freight trains to navigate a switching wye, require complex construction staging and threaten pedestrian safety at light rail stations as transit riders would need to cross freight rail tracks between the stations and park and ride facilities.
In reviewing the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, St. Louis Park council members argued the document does not provide enough details for mitigation regardless of the freight rail route chosen. The official St. Louis Park response also asserts the Draft Environmental Impact Statement does not fairly compare the reroute plan with the collocation idea.
Despite arguments from Safety in the Park, the St. Louis Park council decided not to provide a threat to withhold municipal consent if planners choose to proceed with the freight rail reroute plan. In contrast, Minneapolis officials did threaten to withhold municipal consent if planners scrap the reroute idea in favor of collocation.
A Final Environmental Impact Statement is set to be released in 2013.
The LRT summary was written by Seth Rowe, St. Louis Park Community Editor.
In January 2012 an alleged fake-suicide story broke. An Eden Prairie man allegedly penned a suicide note while attempting to escape federal conviction.
In fall 2011 Travis Magdalena Scott, a “shy, small, soft-spoken man,” as his attorney described, allegedly faked suicide and flew a plane to Canada before a federal judge could sentence him for defrauding a company out of nearly $11.5 million.
“That just makes a million questions,” Marsh Halberg said in January 2012, after he discovered his 34-year-old former client was found in Winnipeg.
Scott had pleaded guilty to a multi-million dollar insurance fraud in May 2011 and months later penned a suicide note left at Lake Mille Lacs. He was found in December in Winnipeg with a gun, thousands of dollars in cash and attempting to get drugs with a forged prescription, according to Winnipeg police.
“You can’t make this stuff up, right?” said Halberg, a high-profile attorney who has also represented Denny Hecker and Amy Senser in the fatal hit-and-run court case.
Scott defrauded insurance company Zurich North America in 2008 by falsifying reports, order receipts, tax statements and composing emails posed as customers of his business, according to federal court documents.
After he pleaded guilty in May in Minneapolis Federal Court, the next step was setting a date for a judge’s sentencing.
In September 2011, nearly 100 miles north of the Twin Cities, the Mille Lacs County Sheriff received a report of a kayak containing the suicide note and a bullet hole located on the west side of Mille Lacs Lake.
The note said Scott was going to drop himself in the middle of the lake, held down with blocks, Halberg said.
After multiple sweeps, his body never came up. Since there was a suicide note but no body, and given Scott was facing a long prison sentence, he was placed on both a wanted list and the county’s missing person’s list.
“It almost appears as though he’s attempted to stage his death,” Mille Lacs County Sheriff Brent Lindgren said in November 2011.
By late December 2011, Scott turned up at a pharmacy in Canada, where he attempted to get drugs with a forged prescription, according to a Winnipeg police report.
When authorities arrived at the pharmacy, Scott had forged prescriptions and identification with multiple names. Outside in his car, they found more forged prescriptions and a loaded handgun, according to allegations in the report.
In his apartment in Canada, they found more items: $35,000 in Canadian and U.S. cash, $85,000 in 1-ounce gold coins, $756 in 1-ounce silver coins, medication obtained through forged signatures, bear spray and other items, according to the report.
He also had materials to make the forged identification and prescriptions, including computers, a thermal printer and an inkjet printer.
He used the names Paul Ian Decker and Travis Olson for his fake IDs.
Authorities also found out how he got to Canada. On Sept. 10, Scott took a Piper aircraft, “in attempts to start a new life in Canada,” the police report said. Scott took off from Minneapolis and landed at an airport in St. Andrews, Manitoba.
How he got the cash, the Piper airplane, gun, apartment, car and other materials were unclear.
In his 30 years as an attorney, Halberg has had clients unnerved when facing prison time, but “nothing to this level. Nothing international and this level of planning,” he said.
In his guilty plea, Scott admitted he submitted false insurance claims to Zurich North America June 2008 to December 2008.
He used insurance money to buy three aircraft, a boat and three vehicles. The Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division seized those items and more than $5 million in various bank accounts.
Scott obtained more than $11 million by filing false insurance claims through his business, Security Management Technologies.
On June 1, 2008, a year after he obtained insurance from Zurich North America, he reported lightning struck his business, causing enough damage to claim $9.5 million in damaged property and equipment, the policy limit.
Eden Prairie became the 18th city in the state to adopt a domestic partnership registry in 2012. The approval came 10 months prior to the General Election, when a majority of Minnesota voters turned down a state constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
The city’s domestic partnership registry allows two people who are not married but live together to document their relationship, thereby making themselves eligible for some benefits.
Those benefits could include bereavement leave, family leave, and insurance benefits at companies that recognize domestic partnerships. Under state law, municipalities cannot recognize domestic partnerships when determining its employees’ benefits.
To qualify for the domestic partnership registration in Eden Prairie, two people must live — not merely work — in the city; they must be unmarried and living together. Qualified couples are also described as “jointly responsible to each other for the necessities of life,” and “committed to one another to the same extent as married persons are to each other,” according to a staff summary.
Both heterosexual and same-sex couples are eligible for the registration.
Statewide, 17 cities had adopted a domestic partnership registry before Eden Prairie, the most recent of which was Eagan. Southwest metro area cities that have adopted a domestic partnership registration include Edina, Richfield, Golden Valley and St. Louis Park.
It may not have made big headlines, but the Eden Prairie City Council’s decision to implement a franchise fee could pay huge dividends in the long run.
Adding a total of $5 per month to residential gas and electrical bills could be worth $2 million in road repairs each year.
Commercial and Industrial property fees would range from $3-$45 on each utility bill per month, depending on the size of the business; Public Works Director Robert Ellis said the maximum $45 fee would be for a “Wal-Mart” size business.
The decision occurred during a June city council meeting, months after the idea was analyzed by a citizen commission, discussed by the city council and presented to citizens during meetings and an open house.
Staff and the city council had been looking at road maintenance costs and plans for a year. Like many cities, Eden Prairie did not have a funding source for on-going road maintenance, which costs $2 million annually.
In recent years, little money had gone into a maintenance fund and it was facing a deficit by 2015, which is why the city council had the citizen-led Budget Advisor Commission look into funding options for street repairs, including the franchise fee proposal.
After reviewing several options, franchise fees seemed the most plausible. They would serve as alternative to assessing homeowners when the road repairs occur around their property, an expense that can easily reach thousands of dollars.
The average condition of Eden Prairie roadways is a rating of 81 (“very good”) on the Pavement Condition Index, Ellis said. The index is a 0-100 scale developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Without any maintenance, the roadway’s condition could noticeably deteriorate in the long term. But, spending about $2 million a year to maintain them would see a decline to 78 pci by 2022 and 70 pci by 2032, which is the border line between “very good” and “good” conditions.
Ellis said gaining that return wouldn’t be worth a high investment; it would cost twice as much, $4 million per year, to have roadways that rate 81-88, Ellis said.
Ellis said he would anticipate the city revisiting the roadway conditions and expectations five years from now.
Roadways have a 20-year lifespan without maintenance work. Seal coating, mill and overlay and other techniques can double that expectancy.
“We do expect to see 40 years from all of our streets,” Ellis said during a January workshop.
Tragedy and safety concerns
The past year also saw a tragedy that prompted further review of highway safety concerns.
In late May, Aimee Trudeau, 12, was walking her bike across Highway 101 on Sandy Hook Road when she was struck by a Sports Utility Vehicle.
She was sent to the Hennepin County Medical Center in critical condition, but died around 10:30 p.m. that day.
The tragic accident prompted community support for the family and questions about the roadway’s safety.
A month after the incident, city- and state-level officials considered new safety measures near the residential areas of the highway.
Robert Ellis, Eden Prairie director of public works, said he and staff from the city of Chanhassen and the Minnesota Department of Transportation met June 25 to discuss Highway 101 conditions.
They came up with possible short-term and long-term changes to the highway, which is the boundary line of Eden Prairie and Chanhassen.
The stretch of highway they focused on was between Highway 5 and Highway 62, according to a summary from Ellis. The state department had done a speed study, reviewed accidents in the last three years and did a general audit of the area.
Speed studies showed that 85 percent of drivers traveled 48-49 miles per hour in the 45 mile-per-hour zone, Ellis said, which is within the target range when the state determines the appropriate speed limit.
MnDOT conducted a second speed study during the summer, focusing on how fast people drive on the highway’s “hill crests and sags,” Ellis reported.
The state department also reviewed accidents on that stretch during the past three years. There were 19 on the roadway (lower than average for such a roadway), eight of which occurred at the Pleasant View Road intersection, according to Ellis, and half of the 19 accidents occurred during the winter.
Vegetation may have also grown too extensively over the highway as well. Some streets and driveways’ sight lines were obstructed from over-growth, so MnDOT planned to trim plants in needed areas. They will also determine if mailboxes are blocking any views for drivers and pedestrians.
The two cities helped the state department make improvements at the intersection of Pleasant View Road and Highway 101 that summer, according to Ellis. They included:
• A flashing beacon that pedestrians can activate
• Marked crosswalks
• Pedestrian warning signs
• Pedestrian ramps
• Vehicle turn lanes
Long-term, there could be a few options for the stretch of highway, but they were only discussed, according to Ellis.
“[They] included the construction of a trail on the east side of Highway 101 and the potential reconstruction of the roadway to a two lane or three lane section sometime in the future,” Ellis said. “A determination on the viability of these strategies will likely occur in 2013 as long term capital improvement programs are developed.”
Viability of long-term options will be based on MnDOT’s budget analysis for all state highway projects, according to Ellis, which is expected to take place in 2013.
At the city level, if reconstruction is extensive, it may be 6-10 years before Eden Prairie could pay for the capital projects, Ellis said.
“It’ll be difficult if we’re going to look at the long-term option of reconstruction,” Ellis said.