Biggest crowd ever comes to see this year's Holiday Train

Mild weather helped bring out huge crowds for the Holiday Train stops this year.  This photo was taken in Loretto.  The photographer was going to take pictures in Buffalo, but the traffic was so heavy he could not get out of Loretto in time to catch the train in Buffalo.  (Photo courtesy of Bill Nord)

On its way to Buffalo, the Holiday Train displays bright colors and lights.  (Photo courtesy of Bill Nord)


Knee-deep in donations, Tennille Popelka (left) and Roger Brenny (right) of the Buffalo Food Shelf appreciate the generosity of the Holiday Day crowd.  (Photo courtesy of Buffalo Lions Club) 

By Ed DuBois

The popularity of the annual Holiday Train event, combined with mild weather, brought out the biggest crowd Buffalo has ever seen at the depot in the wintertime.

Traffic was extremely heavy on roads leading to the Holiday Train stops in Loretto, Buffalo and Annandale last Saturday evening, Dec. 13.

Buffalo Police Chief Pat Budke said, "CP Rail estimated between 13,000-15,000.  All Buffalo Police Department observations of the area, pedestrians and spectator vehicles support that estimate.  It was definitely the best attendance of a Holiday Train event ever in Buffalo."

The colors and lights of the Holiday Train are a big draw every year, and the musical entertainment on a traveling boxcar stage is a crowd pleaser, as well.

Another reason people come is to support local food shelves.

The Buffalo Food Shelf reported an extraordinary amount of donations this year.  The official weight of product received by the Buffalo Food Shelf was 4,957 pounds, "an amazing amount," said Roger Brenny of the Food Shelf.  The money donated at this year's event amounted to $1,884.

"A huge thank you to the Lions for hosting this event, and to all the wonderful people in our community and surrounding area for their support," Brenny said.  "It was by far the largest Holiday Train event that I have ever seen," said a Lions Club spokesperson.

Usually the weather is very cold when the Holiday Train arrives, but this year the temperature was close to 50 degrees in the afternoon, and the evening temperatures were not far below 50.


Delano area man dies in Highway 12 crash

A 55-year-old man from Franklin Township (rural Delano) died in a crash on Highway 12 in the Maple Plain area on Tuesday, Dec. 9.

A report from the Hennepin County Medical Examiner said the incident took place at about 4:20 p.m. along the 5400 block of Highway 12.  The man who died is Kevin Orr.

According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the crash occurred just east of County Rd. 83.  Two pickup trucks were involved.

Orr is one of four people who have died in three crashes on Highway 12 in the Maple Plain/County Rd. 6 area since last April, the newspaper reported.  Efforts are now underway to add centerline rumble strips along the highway.

A memorial service for Orr is taking place on Saturday, Dec. 20, 3 p.m., in the Iten Funeral Chapel, Delano, with visitation from 1-3 p.m.  A party follows at the Delano Legion.



County Board cuts $75,000 in fuel funds before final '15 budget, levy approval

By Ed DuBois

Just before final approval of the 2015 budget and tax levy last Tuesday, Dec. 16, the Wright County Board found a way to cut about $75,000 in fuel costs.

Commissioner Pat Sawatzke brought up the idea, saying everyone is paying less at the pumps these days.  He suggested taking about $50,000 out of the budget, and by the time discussion and calculating concluded, the reduction came to about $75,000.

The final 2015 budget figure is $106.01 million, which is 3.6 percent more than the 2014 budget.

The final property tax levy for 2015 is $52.96 million, which is 4.73 percent more than the levy for 2014.

Months of budget-setting meetings had preceded the finalizing of the budget and levy.  The Board had also recently conducted an annual taxation hearing.

When Sawatzke initially suggested reducing fuel budgets, County Auditor-Treasurer Bob Hiivala calculated that a $50,000 cut could be accomplished by reducing all fuel line items in each department by 8 percent.  He offered to go adjust the figures accordingly and then return to the board meeting.

Commissioners Charlie Borrell and Mark Daleiden suggested a 10-percent reduction, and the other commissioners went along with that.

Hiivala returned a little later and reported the 10-percent reduction amounted to almost $75,000.

The Board approved the reduction, and Hiivala plans to provide a document at the next board meeting with all of the adjusted numbers for all of the budget areas.

The budget area with the greatest increase is the road and bridge fund.  The Highway Department needs to get caught up with projects after the recession.  The road and bridge levy is going up just over 15 percent.  In comparison, the general fund levy is going up 4.77 percent.  One fund is going down.  The Human Services levy is reducing 2.88 percent.

In other business:



The Board authorized the county share of a local cash match for an outdoor recreation grant regarding the eighth phase of land acquisition for the Bertram Chain of Lakes Regional Park Project.

Before the Board gave its approval, Commissioner Borrell called for the roles of the county and the City of Monticello to be clearly defined.  He was assured the roles will be defined as the work on the matter concludes.

The local share of the county is $86,000, and the local share of the city is $86,000.  The grant is funded through the Federal Land and Water Conservation Program.  The total amount is $264,000.



The Board approved a draft Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention and Management Plan, which provides a framework for addressing the AIS threat to local lakes and rivers.  The plan was described as a guide that will likely change as new information and new strategies develop.  Discussing costs, Kerry Saxton of the Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) said boat inspections and signage will likely be among the greatest needs.



In other actions, the Board:

* approved a services contract between Corinna Township and Wright County Planning and Zoning;

* confirmed two at-large appointments to the Bertram Chain of Lakes Advisory Council, Kim Hewson-Garber of Monticello Township and Wes Olson of Monticello;

* appointed Martyn Dibben of Buffalo to the County Parks Commission;

* set the county board per diem rate for 2015 at $50 (per meeting), which is the same as in 2014;

* adopted a 50-cent per mile reimbursement rate for 2015;

* approved a Power Phone contract for a Total Response Emergency Call Handling System, which is aimed at helping the sheriff's communications center staff perform even more effectively;

* approved a resolution recommending conveyance of tax forfeit parcels to the City of St. Michael;

* approved a City of Montrose tax forfeit land resolution;

* tabled action on replacing a drug and alcohol use policy, which involves random testing;

* authorized filling a social worker position;

* welcomed new network analyst Joseph Ihrig to the county's IT Department;

* approved an increase in the License Bureau's change fund from $1,000 to $2,000;

* approved a $100 change fund for the County Coordinator's Office, plus a $100 petty cash fund;

* scheduled a closed Negotiations Committee of the Whole meeting on Dec. 23 at 10 a.m. to discuss negotiations strategies;

* scheduled a March 3, 10 a.m., employee recognition ceremony; and

* approved $835,979 in claims involving 490 transactions with 306 vendors.



Budke appointed police chief; city budget, levy approved

Buffalo Councilmember Steve Downer, right, accepts a plaque from Mayor Brad Nauman at Monday's council meeting.  Downer, who has been on the council for six years, was not re-elected in the November election.  He said he enjoyed serving the citizens of Buffalo and thanked the city staff for all of their work in making Buffalo a great place to live. (Photo by Doug Voerding)

The city council welcomed Pat Budke as the new Buffalo Police Chief.  He has worked in the police department 14 years and had been serving as interim chief over the past four months. (Photo by Doug Voerding)


By Doug Voerding

Now it's "Chief" Pat Budke.  The Buffalo City Council on Monday night, Dec. 15 officially hired Budke as chief of police.

Budke had been serving as interim chief for the last four months.

Mayor Brad Nauman said, "We tried to find a chief from outside of Buffalo.  We offered the job to someone who turned it down.  And here we have the best person right in house."

The plan was for Budke to serve as interim chief for six months, but Nauman said, "We want to fast track the process."

All of the councilmembers noted the work Budke has already done as interim chief and expressed confidence in Budke as the permanent chief.

Budke has been with the Buffalo Police Department for the past 14 years.



The Truth-in-Taxation hearing was held in November, but the council on Monday adopted the city's 2015 budget and levy.

The 2015 levy will be $2,956,426, an increase of $149,998 or about five percent.

The 2015 levy for debt service will be $2,839,237.



After separate public hearings, the council first adopted the street reconstruction plan and called for the issuance of general obligation bonds to fund the reconstruction projects.

The bonds will be $1,800,000 for Highway 25 improvements, $892,000 for Settlers Parkway improvements, and $450,000 for the second phase of the southeast street and utility project.

The council then adopted tax abatement and approved the issuance of bonds to finance the reconstruction of three retaining walls on Hillside Lane and Lake Boulevard and at the library for $585,000 and the reconstruction of the Bellavista Trail in the northwest part of the city for $115,000.

All of the bonds will be supported by the tax levy.

City Administrator Mert Auger told the council that every year the auditor sets the legal debt level for the city.

"We have been well below that," said Auger, "giving us the flexibility to do further projects, if needed."

The council also noted that the city's contribution to the projects has leveraged another $15 million from other sources.



Erv Schmidt of the Community Center reported to the council that his group had made 7,683 toys this year, almost 1,500 more than last year.  He said the "Tree of Hope airport people" have a connection to 366 children's hospitals and that the toys will be distributed there, too.

Schmidt said the volunteer builders had been logging between 90 and 95 hours per week at the shop near Sturges Park and that the group is always looking for more volunteers.

Schmidt also thanked the donors for their generosity.



Mayor Brad Nauman told the council there is a phone scam where people are calling residents, saying they are from the utility department and are collecting unpaid water bills.

Said Nauman, "Don't give out personal information to these callers.  Hang up and call the city at 763-682-1001 to report the scam."



The council appointed Douglas Roush, Rainer Pensky, Terry Morrow, and William Hill to the airport advisory board.

Carol Hoekstra was appointed to the golf course advisory board, and Derek Rosso and Jack Harrold were named to the library advisory board.

Additional appointments are expected at the first meeting in January.



The council approved annual liquor licenses for several groups: on-sale liquor and Sunday sales for Applebee's, Buffalo American Legion, Buffalo Bar and Grill, Bunkers Of Course, El Molcajete Mexican Restaurant, Huikko's, J's Restaurant and Bar Down Under, Mill Creek Inn, Rancho Grande Mexican Restaurant, and Tavern at Wild Marsh, as well:

- off-sale 3.2 beer and malt beverages for Coborn's, Cub Foods, Holiday, Kwik Trip, and Wal-Mart.

- on-sale 3.2 beer and malt beverages and wine: BJ's Deli and Dagmar's.

Licenses were also approved for twelve businesses selling cigarettes, tobacco, and e-cigarettes.



Councilmember Paul Olson reminded Buffalo residents that Christmas wrapping paper is not recyclable because of the coating on the paper.

Olson suggested that the used wrapping paper would be good for packing material and for washing windows.

"And," said Olson, "you can always carefully flatten it out and use it next year, like my mother did."

Olson also asked residents to be careful going out on the ice and to be alert for children who will be on vacation from school.



In other action, the council:

- thanked Dave Eide and friends for the construction of a canopy over the Korean-era plane at the airport. The canopy was destroyed in a storm. Downer told the council that Eide also refused compensation for the materials.

- accepted $250 from CentraSota for the Buffalo Fire Department.

- accepted $400 from Randall Hamborg for the Community Center Toy Workshop as a memorial for Marlene Hamborg.

- will hold a public hearing on January 20 to consider the vacation of a sanitary sewer easement at 609 Lake Boulevard. When the installation of the sanitary sewer was underway, a new easement was gained, but the first easement was never vacated.

- approved the Settlers Pointe final plat and registered land survey.



Montrose City Council decides to appeal an unemployment filing

By Doug Voerding

At the end of a special meeting on Monday, Dec. 15, the Montrose City Council decided to appeal the filing for unemployment by former City Administrator Barb Swanson, who was fired on Nov. 14 after the council held an emergency special meeting on Nov. 13.

Voting to direct the city attorney to file the appeal were outgoing Mayor Roy Henry and Councilmembers Lloyd Johnson and Michelle Otto.  Outgoing Councilmembers Mark Krotzer and Ben Kuehl were not at the meeting.

The Montrose City Council met with City Attorney Andy Pratt and Attorney Michael McCain to discuss, according to the meeting notice, "unemployment benefit proceeding filed by former City Administrator Barb Swanson."  Pratt and McCain are part of the Eckberg Glammers law firm, and McCain is an employment and labor lawyer.

Before the meeting was closed, Pratt said the State of Minnesota had informed the city by letter that Swanson's request for unemployment benefits was going to be granted unless the city appeals that as of Dec. 24. 2014.

According to McCain, the appeal process would begin with the attorney filing the appeal electronically.  Following the filing, a telephone hearing will be scheduled with an unemployment law judge.

McCain told the council that, at the evidentiary hearing, "Barb has the opportunity to give representation as well, and we would simply argue before the judge."

"The question is," said McCain, "was there gross misconduct to essentially prevent Barb from getting unemployment benefits.  That's the standard and the threshold that the court will look at."

The meeting was then closed under Minnesota state statute 13D.05, Subd. 4, attorney-client privilege, "to discuss the claim filed against the city by the former City Administrator Barb Swanson for unemployment benefits."

When the meeting reopened after being closed for more than an hour, the council voted, without discussion, to appeal the unemployment claim.



Not guilty verdict received by former Maple Lake priest

A pair of former parishioner expressed joy and relief as Father Mark Huberty was acquitted on Monday, Dec. 8 in Ramsey County District Court, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Father Huberty, 44, who formerly served in Maple Lake, covered his face with one hand and wept as the verdicts were read.

The jury had deliberated an hour-and-a-half and cleared Huberty on two counts of criminal sexual conduct for allegedly starting a sexual relationship with a married parishioner he had been counseling.

In a written statement, Huberty said, "I never understood why the prosecution pursued this so aggressively.  A lot of unnecessary harm was caused for a lot of people, including the people of my parish and the complainant herself."

"Now it is time to heal," he added.

He remained on leave from active ministry until a standards board for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis finishes reviewing the case.

Huberty met the woman in the case while he was pastor at the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in Maplewood.  The case hinged on whether the relationship had transitioned from a priest-penitent dynamic to a personal relationship.  Huberty's attorney, Paul Engh, said the woman initiated physical contact, and when Huberty asked her to be his friend, the dynamic of their relationship changed.

The Maple Lake Messenger reported Huberty served at St. Timothy's Parish in Maple Lake from 2001 to 2007 and left to accept a pastorate at the church in Maplewood.



St. Michael pursuit concludes with arrests

A pursuit by Wright County sheriff's deputies in St. Michael last Thursday, Dec. 11 ended with several arrests.

Sheriff Joe Hagerty reports that on Thursday, Dec. 11, deputies observed a stolen 1993 Cadillac Fleetwood sedan traveling eastbound on CSAH (County State Aid Highway) 35 toward St. Michael.  Deputies attempted to stop the vehicle near the intersection of CSAH 35 and Jamison.  A short pursuit ensued approximately one mile, and deputies were able to stop the vehicle on Kalberg Ct. and Kahlen Ave, in St. Michael.  The four occupants were arrested on assorted charges.

The driver, Adam Switala, 25, of Monticello, was arrested for fleeing a peace officer, receiving stolen property, fifth-degree controlled substance, and driving after revocation.

A passenger, Ashley Garvey, 21, of Coon Rapids, was arrested for receiving stolen property and fifth-degree controlled substance.

Two other passengers were arrested.  Andrea Aviles, 32, of Big Lake, was arrested for receiving stolen property and possession of hypodermic needles.  Kyle Leseman, 24, of Elk River, was arrested for possession of stolen property, fifth-degree controlled substance and introduction of contraband into a correctional facility.

The Cadillac had been reported stolen on Dec. 10, 2014 from a residence in Monticello Township.


Game-A-Thon open to all Jan. 1 at Community Center

Free and open to the public, a Game-A-Thon with food, fun and games will be taking place on New Year's Day, Thursday, Jan. 1 from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. at the Buffalo Community Center.

Come one, come all for board games, miniatures, role playing games, video games, card games, and more.

The event is being sponsored by SciFi Saturday (Check it out on Facebook.).

Come and enter to win a prize basket.

The Buffalo Community Center, 206 Central Ave., is located across the street from the Buffalo Post Office.  Children must be accompanied by a parent.

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Live streaming bird's-eye view

Multi-propeller drones built and flown by local hobbyist enjoying a rapidly growing new trend

By Ed DuBois

Wearing special electronic goggles, Chris Reed can see what the tiny video camera on his multi-propeller drone sees as it flies near Pelican Lake.  Now and then, he needs to switch to the view from the ground and check exactly where the drone is going and make sure it is on a safe course.

For his birthday last year, his wife, Amanda, gave him a foam quad copter, and since then, Chris has been part of a fast growing trend.  Sales of drones to hobbyists have exploded over the past year, according to a recent story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Pun not intended, Chris commented, "This hobby has really taken off in the last few years."

"Building them is my favorite part," he added.  "It's a great way to learn about small electronics."

While growing up in Maple Grove, he was "always into electronics and computers."  Today, his career involves technology.  The Monticello resident works in auto parts with Cottens' NAPA (mostly at the Anoka location), and he provides the IT (information technology) services for the company.

Chris enjoys the flight control aspects of his hobby, as well as set up and configuring the software involved with controlling his drones.


He builds drones

He has lost count of the drones he owns.

"I have three or four off the shelf (already assembled), plus ten or more that were in kit form, which you can assemble the way you want."

Bigger models offer more capabilities.  Most of his drones are quad copters, but one of the drones is a hex (six-rotor) copter.

"Some just fly around, and some can carry a camera.  Through live streaming video, they can provide FPV (first person view).  You see the view from the copter," Chris explained.

"When I found out the things you can do, like live video streaming, it all became quite intriguing," he said.

A few hobby stores have drones for sale, but Chris mainly buys his drones online, usually on Amazon.

He commented that flying drones ties into remote control airplanes.

"I always wanted to be a pilot," he mentioned.


Safety first

In the interest of safety, he mostly flies his drones at Pelican Lake, where there is plenty of open space and very few people.  One of his favorite videos was shot as the drone flew about a foot over the lake surface.

"I once lost one in the lake.  I was filming pelicans when there was a malfunction," Chris recalled.  "I waded in and grabbed it."

Once in a while he goes to places that offer unique views of areas that are not easily accessible.  He said he would like to go to the North Shore and get some video shots of Lake Superior cliffs and Gooseberry Falls.  He could end up with views that only the sea gulls get to see.

His early videos created with the drones are very shaky.  Chris solved the problem with a brushless gimbal camera mount, which keeps the camera stable and in line with the horizon.

His GoPro camera is fairly expensive, and while it is being flown around on the underside of a drone, there is potential for significant damage if there is a crash.  Chris said he usually does not buy extended warranties, but for the GoPro he bought an accidental replacement plan.

"If something goes wrong, I can bring in the pieces and get a brand new one," he said.


Sends back flight information

Chris uses a laptop computer as a ground station.  He mentioned he can point and click locations on a GPS map to preprogram where a drone will fly.

While in flight, a drone sends back all kinds of flight information, such as: its position, its battery level, its altitude, the distance to home (the starting point), and air speed.

An interesting feature in some drones is called "return to home."  If something goes wrong during a flight, Chris can flip a switch on his remote control device, and the drone will fly back to the starting point.


Optimum efficiency

The drone rotors are spun by small but powerful brushless electric motors.  An outer bell lined with magnets rotates around a copper wire core.

Chris said he enjoys adjusting motor speeds and finding the "sweet spot," the synchronized speed of optimum efficiency.

The range of the drones can be almost a mile.  The size of the battery determines the range and the flight duration.  Chris has batteries ranging from 3.6 volts to 22.8 volts.

Another type of battery rating is called mAh (milliamp hours), which can range from 100 to over 10,000.  Chris said his largest battery is 6,000 mAh.

A larger drone is needed to handle the weight of larger batteries.  Chris has been working lately on building one of his largest drones, which will be about two feet across and will likely be powered by a pair of 22.8-volt batteries.

He mentioned that smaller motors spin faster (up to around 22,000 rpm) and the larger motors spin slower (approximately 4,000 - 5,000 rpm).


Learn the dangers

Chris said safety is number one when he flies his drones.  His advice to anyone who wants to try flying a drone is to take the time to learn the dangers.  Think about what could go wrong, he said.

"I have seen kids run up to a drone while the blades were spinning," he mentioned.

That's one reason why he goes to remote areas to fly his drones.


Black gadget

If you drive along CSAH 37 near the northern shore of Pelican Lake next spring or summer and see a man holding a remote control device, he might be wearing a black gadget over his eyes.  He might be Chris, and the gadget could be his special goggles.

Flying a drone with his Go Pro sending live streaming video images to the goggles, he will be enjoying a bird's-eye view of everything around him.