Regional News in Review - November 2016

Family files lawsuit against city

Earlier this year, Burnsville police fatally shot a man whose family said was mentally ill. Map Kong’s family has filed a lawsuit against the city of Burnsville and the Burnsville police, claiming the use of lethal force on Kong was excessive and unconstitutional.

On the morning of March 17, Burnsville Police responded to a report of suspicious activity in a McDonald’s parking lot. Five officers responded and found Kong, 38, wildly brandishing a knife while in the driver’s seat of a car.

Police body camera video shows officers break two vehicle windows and ordering Kong to drop the knife. He wouldn’t comply, and police used a Taser on him. After Kong had fled the vehicle, police shot and killed him. A Dakota County, a grand jury in June, concluded that officers involved were legally justified when they used deadly force in the shooting death of Kong. Toxicology tests for Kong tested positive for amphetamine and methamphetamine, according to a news release from Dakota County.

State law outlines when deadly force by an officer is justified. But Kong’s family contends that police were negligent and deliberately indifferent to Kong’s medical needs as he swung a knife in his car in mental distress. They also claim the city of Burnsville as negligent and indifferent in failing to train officers to respond to a mental health crisis. His family is seeking more than $1 million in damages. (Source: WCCO-TV)

 

Many wait for services

More than 1,000 people are waiting for services from Minnesota’s Vocational Rehabilitation Program. The state program is already rationing services for hundreds of clients and may have to turn away new applicants. The program is coping with new federal workforce mandates, a looming financial shortfall and pressure at the state level to hire more people with disabilities. The delays also affect the court-ordered Olmstead Plan and its goals of moving about 20,000 people into the workforce by 2020.

There are fears that the state program could reach capacity by late next year. “Our credibility is at stake,” said Kim Peck, director of vocational rehabilitation services. “Our staff didn’t sign up to put people on waiting lists.”

The program annually helps about 3,100 clients obtain jobs in the mainstream workforce while providing thousands more with on-the-job skills training, assistive technology, and other services. Its cost-effectiveness is highly regarded.

Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, a longtime advocate of greater work options for people with disabilities, said closing services for new applicants would have “devastating” consequences for young people and could damage the state’s already poor record on workforce integration of people with disabilities. Only 11 percent of Minnesotans with developmental disabilities who received state services in 2014 worked in integrated jobs alongside people without disabilities — the sixth-lowest rate in the nation.

The state estimates that 15,400 Minnesotans still work in cloistered workplaces, known as sheltered workshops, and other sites that pay workers less than minimum wage. (Source: Star Tribune)

 

Rochester hospital graves marked

The state hospital cemetery at Quarry Hill Park in Rochester has been marked with headstones, thanks to dedicated local volunteers and Advocating Change Together’s Remembering With Dignity project. More than 2,000 people are buried there.

The project has taken 10 years. Proponents said it adds to history for families and for the Rochester community. “If you go to any old cemetery, you see tombstones and gravestones that are just filled with history,” said Buff Hennessey, executive director of The Arc of Southeastern Minnesota. “And here it was kind of absent.”

State and private funding helped pay for the project. “It’s been a labor of love,” said Beth Thompson, a Rochester genealogist and volunteer who, along with her husband, John, have used state hospital records to retrieve the identities of the people buried at the cemetery. A dedication ceremony was held in October.

The Rochester State Hospital opened in 1879. It housed people living with disabilities including mental illness. It closed in 1981. Some patients ended their lives there by hanging themselves or jumping out of third-floor windows. In one case, a man jumped into a furnace.

Some patients who died at the hospital were buried there. Graves were marked at first with wooden crosses, and then with small can-shaped markers. The final piece of the project is to complete a kiosk at the cemetery entrance. It will provide a history of the cemetery as well as a directory to help those searching for a gravesite. (Source: Rochester Post-Bulletin)

 

Coffee and ASL met city challenge

Visitors can come to Thompson Hall Deaf Club in St. Paul and learn American Sign Language (ASL) over coffee. But the service cannot operate as a coffee shop business, according to St. Paul city officials.

The club members put out banners and signs during the summer offering coffee and ASL. The club has a garden-level room with a service counter that serves as a space for the classes and for other meetings and events. Coffee sales were seen as a way to provide a small stream of revenue for building upkeep. Thompson Hall Deaf Club was founded 100 years ago this month with a commitment to free membership.

The club has long invited its neighbors to events such as its annual rummage sale. The hall’s space is also rented out for private events. The coffee and ASL was seen as a new model of outreach.

In August St. Paul Department of Safety and Inspections asked that the coffee sales cease and that the banners and signs come down. Thompson Hall is on a residentially zoned lot, so a coffee shop cannot legally operate there.

The club can and will continue to offer ASL lessons to anyone wanting to learn the language, including students at area colleges and universities. Those who use ASL, or who want to use ASL, are considered to be club members.

Anyone interested in the Thompson Hall Deaf Club can go here for more info. (Source: Access Press staff

 

Starkey fraud charges head to trial

Four of five executives accused of stealing more than $20 million from Starkey Hearing Technologies have pleaded not guilty to fraud charges. The complex case is slated to go to trial December 19.

The indictments continued an escalating conflict between Starkey majority owner Bill Austin and some former business associates. It has involved state and federal officials, including the FBI and the IRS.

Last year the Eden Prairie-based company abruptly fired Jerry Ruzicka, who led Starkey for 17 years. Ruzicka and two other former Starkey executives —Scott Nelson and Lawrence Miller — were indicted on multiple counts of fraud by a grand jury over schemes in which they allegedly padded their paychecks with unearned, six-figure bonuses and took steps to conceal those payments from Austin. Ruzicka and Nelson were accused of creating shell companies to make secret deals.

Also charged are William Jeffrey Taylor, who allegedly used his position as one of Starkey’s major suppliers to earn millions of dollars in fraudulent commissions and consulting fees; and Lawrence Hagen, a former Starkey employee.

Some of those charged contend that Austin was involved, a charge he denies. (Source: Star Tribune)

 

Companion animal sparks lawsuit

A New Brighton apartment complex owner faces a civil rights lawsuit, after a former resident with disabilities was told she couldn’t have a Shih Tzu companion dog. The lawsuit was filed this fall in U.S. District Court. The U.S. Attorney contends that Jane Poeschel was treated unlawfully and that federal fair housing laws were violated, while she lived at Garden Grove apartments. The apartments are owned by Oak Grove Realty Services Inc.

Poeschel lived at the apartment complex for two years and during that time was bullied and threatened with eviction by property managers. She also alleges that there was a refusal to accommodate her dog.

Poeschel has lived with multiple disabilities for more than 30 years. She began renting at Garden Grove, which allows dogs and cats, in June 2013. But when she tried to add a dog in March 2014, property management suggested she get a cat instead, citing potential disruption of neighbors. Even with a doctor’s letter property management pushed back and refused to renew her lease.

The suit says that the apartment managers retaliated against Poeschel after she had filed a complaint with U.S. Housing and Urban Development in August 2014 and that the resulting stress led her to move out of the complex.

Poeschel hasn’t been able to find another affordable home and has been living in a camper, according to the lawsuit. (Source: Star Tribune)

 

Affordable housing is saved

St. Paul’s Como by the Lake apartment complex has long provided housing for elders and people with disabilities. That housing was almost lost when the property went up for sale. But its Section 8 status was maintained thanks to its purchase by nonprofit housing provider Aeon. Maintaining affordable housing there and throughout the state was celebrated in October when Gov. Mark Dayton announced $80 million in funding for affordable housing projects this year. The financing, in part from the Metropolitan Council, will support 57 developments totaling 1,831 housing units across the state.

Minnesota Housing Commissioner Mary Tingerthal said that Minnesota doesn’t have adequate housing for its poor, disabled and elderly, but that the funding is a step in the right direction.

This year’s amount is less than the $92 million that was handed out last year. And in 2014, with the help of housing infrastructure bonding, the state distributed $161.6 million. Dayton lamented the lack of a biannual bonding bill this year, which would have led to additional funding.

$2.96 million in tax credits for the Como by the Lake project itself, which is estimated to cost roughly $15 million in total. The project is headed by Minneapolis-based Aeon. Aeon’s ownership allows the building’s tenants to stay. (Source: Pioneer Press)

 

Universal playground project set

Willmar children of all abilities will someday enjoy a fully accessible, destination playground at Robbins Island. “The playground is going to happen, it is a definite thing,” said Dave Baker, fundraising chairman for Willmar’s Destination Playground steering committee.

The playground committee presented its plans to the City Council this fall. The nearly 20,000-foot playground is scheduled to be built May 18 through May 26. Hundreds of community volunteers will be needed. In addition to actual construction jobs, volunteers will also be needed for child care, food and maintaining the tool trailer. Work will start as soon as late November. Local contractors will be moving dirt, moving utility lines and creating drainage. The final design of the playground is nearing completion as well. Many of the playground pieces will be accessible for children with disabilities.

The playground will be built with composite materials, making it safer and longer-lasting than wood or metal. It will also be under 24/7 security camera surveillance. One of the largest costs will be the specially designed ground cover, a poured rubber product, which will be much gentler on kids’ bodies and make it easier for those with disabilities to take part in the fun. Baker said the ground covering is almost a third of the entire cost. Since fundraising began earlier this year, the committee has already raised over $675,000 out of the $800,000 estimated to build the park. The fundraising success is in great part due to a $500,000 donation from Jennie-O Turkey Store.

There will be a volunteer task for everybody, according to organizers. Those interested in the project can visit www.willmarplayground.com  (Source: West Central Tribune)