City, Bergson lead top stories of 2005

From death to debt, it was a big year for Duluth. But it was an even bigger year for Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson -- who makes an appearance in the top three of the Budgeteer's "Top 10 Stories of 2005."...

From death to debt, it was a big year for Duluth. But it was an even bigger year for Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson -- who makes an appearance in the top three of the Budgeteer's "Top 10 Stories of 2005."

1. City health care liability becomes huge

On early Dec. 12, the Retiree Health Care Task Force presented its findings on the realities of the city's "employee health care for life" policy. The picture painted was not pretty. In order to fulfill the promises made, the city is looking at an unfunded liability of $280 million.

The task force offered 15 recommendations to cover the debt, including hikes in utility rates and city property taxes. It also said the city should look into a municipal bankruptcy lawyer -- just in case.

The City Council approved all of the recommendations, but Mayor Herb Bergson will not pursue them until an independent audit of the city's insurance funds is conducted. The task force reported these funds to be abused and mismanaged for years.


2. Winson let go by letter

In late September, Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson fired his chief administrative assistant, Mark Winson, by taping a letter to Winson's door. In the letter, Bergson said he considered Winson an effective manager, but their philosophical differences were apparently insurmountable.

Former Independent School District No. 709 Superintendent Julio Almanza soon took Winson's place and Winson went on to become the vice president of finance and administration at Lake Superior College.

Both Almanza and Winson are enjoying their new positions. Almanza said the administrative assistant position keeps his mind very active and "is a job where you don't suffer for boredom."

Winson calls the atmosphere at LSC wonderful and energetic. "They are all very collegial, no pun intended," he said.

3. Bergson burned for DWI

In early December, Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson was arrested and charged with a DWI after crashing his car on Highway 53, near Spooner, Wis. The mayor's alcohol tests showed that he was two times over the legal limit. Bergson pleaded guilty, paid a $784 fine and had his license suspended for six months.

When Bergson addressed the public he said, "It was probably the biggest mistake of my life. I will live with it forever."


As part of his plea agreement, the mayor will now be given a counseled alcohol assessment and will meet with victims of drunk driving.

Bergson, who made a promise never to drink again, served as a cop for 19 years in between his mayoral positions in Superior and Duluth.

4. Cuts at KDLH News

In March, Granite Broadcasting, which also owns KBJR Channel 6 in Duluth, bought KDLH Channel 3. The $10.3 million buyout increased Granite's ownership of the Duluth TV market to 62 percent.

After the buyout, news programming was reshuffled and deep cuts were made to the staff.

Pat Kelly still remains at Channel 3, as the "News Express" anchor while the others have moved on to other positions.

Former anchor Amy Rutledge is now an account executive at WestmorelandFlint, Chris Earl is doing news in his home town of Eau Claire, Wis., and Phil Johnson is now the weekend weather guy at WDIO Channel 10.

5. DECC hopes for bigger arena


The Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center announced that it would like to add an 8,200 seat arena to its facility. The project would cost $67 million and would be partially funded by a food and beverage tax increase of 0.75 percent. The rest of the project will be paid for by the DECC, UMD, who's teams will play on the ice and lastly by a bonding bill from the state.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty is behind the project, but said he would like to see a public referendum held on the tax increase.

Supporters are pushing for a February vote, so the arena can be included in the Legislature's bonding bill this year. Otherwise, the referendum would take place in November 2006, pushing state funding back to at least 2007.

6. District 4 turns over two incumbents

Garry Krause and Laura Condon both upset incumbents in the November race for District 4 Duluth City Council and District 4 School Board, respectively.

Krause won over City Council veteran Neill Atkins with 58.44 percent of the vote. Atkins said after the race was run that his days on the City Council are over. Krause said after his acclimation period, he will be focusing on issues with road traffic, cleaning up blighted homes in Lincoln Park and advocating for more difficult but proven economic development models. He also said when he proposes committees he will be bringing "new players to the table."

Laura Condon moved from her at large position on the School Board to take Bevan Schraw's position as the 4th District representative. Condon won the race with 58.73 percent. She was unavailable for comment.

The new positions, for both the council and board, become active on Jan. 9.


7. 148th narrowly escapes grounding

The U.S. Department of Defense considered the retirement of Duluth's Minnesota Air National Guard 148th Fighter Wing. The elimination would have resulted in a loss of nearly 600 jobs. But the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce headed an appeal group, "Save the Base," which traveled to Washington, D.C., to support the base's necessity.

In the late 1970s there was a failed attempt to "Save the Air Base," but this time the base avoided closure and the Pentagon said the Fighter Wing's F-16 planes will not be retired until the base is assigned another plane.

8. School District gets new 'Super'

Keith Dixon was given ISD 709's top position, superintendent, in July. Dixon, who spent time as a superintendent in southern Minnesota, most recently Faribault, and Colorado before coming to Duluth, is focusing on communication for 2006.

"We (Dixon and School Board members) want to develop a comprehensive communication plan that gets information out to the community and back," Dixon said. Dixon hopes to reach this goal by using surveys, his column in the Budgeteer News and more informal public meetings.

He also said a quality steering committee has been formed to solve problems and build relationships between the school board, the administration, staff, students and community.

He is also looking for the budget to be done early and for a long range facility plan to be formulated.


9. Man dies after arrest

David Croud, 29, died after being taken into custody by the Duluth Police Department in October. The arrest, which witnesses described as violent, involved resistance from Croud and the use of a Taser gun by the police. Croud was then taken to the hospital where he fell into a coma.

Croud allegedly died as a result of a deadly mix of alcohol that was in his system and Haldol, administered by St. Mary's Medical Center.

The St. Louis County medical examiner said the death was accidental, but the American Civil Liberties Union is investigating the treatment of Croud by the Duluth Police, which could lead to civil rights litigation in Federal Court.

10. Hoops all-star dies

In March, the Bernick's Pepsi All-Star basketball game ended in tragedy when an 18-year-old player collapsed and died at half-time. Jarrett Brenner, a senior at Grand Rapids High School, died of a rare heart condition called arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia (ARVD) which is a leading cause of sudden death in young athletes.

This September, family, friends and doctors kicked off "Operation Jarrett," which donated external defibrillators to Itasca County area teams and gymnasiums. If a defibrillators such as these would have been available at the All-Star Game, Brenner's life might have been saved. "Operation Jarrett" has also been hosting community classes on CPR and how to use the external defibrillators.

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