Whalen proposes changing assessment policy to give school district preferential deal

I see on the city’s council agenda for June 7 under “consent agenda” (items that don’t get discussed) that the Westonka School District is going to get their special assessment “deal” at the expense of Minnetrista taxpayers.

Minnetrista’s special assessment policy has always been, regardless of how a road project is funded, to charge properties benefiting from the project, an interest rate that has averaged around 5% until the assessment is paid off. Well, not any more.

Why is the policy changing? Because the city is doing a road project along Sunnyfield Road and the only benefitting property is the Westonka School District. The school asked for a “deal” and the council wouldn’t give it to them, so Mayor Whalen came up with a brilliant idea to change the city’s policy so it couldn’t be called a “deal.” See page 26 of the council packet.

Westonka Schools, if the new policy is adopted Monday night, will only pay 2% interest on their special assessment for the road project. The school district is funded largely by communities outside of Minnetrista as the school district encompasses parts of Mound, Spring Park, Independence and Orono. Many Minnetrista residents are in the Watertown, Waconia, and Delano school districts. If I were a Minnetrista resident paying 5% on a special assessment…oh wait, I am!…I’d be pretty mad.

The school district could choose to pay no interest if it wanted to by paying off the assessment all at once when the project is completed. To be sure they are happier letting Minnetrista taxpayers shoulder the burden.

Speak up tonight Minnetrista!

Your property rights are at stake. Tonight. There is an unconstitutional new nuisance ordinance draft being finalized at the city council work session. They’ve added 18 new “public nuisances” using intentionally vague language so as to allow virtually anyone to be a violator and subject to fines. This unnecessary new ordinance turns the Constitution on its head by putting the city council in the role of writing the law, choosing to whom it should apply, and then acting as the judge and jury on each violation.

Anyone that doesn’t see the problem with this never took a civics course. There is such a thing as separation of powers where elected officials make laws, executive branch enforces them, and the judicial branch adjudicates them. How on earth does the League of Minnesota Cities (this is based on their model ordinance) think this is acceptable!

Keep in mind the contrived urgency to enact this bad idea is because of one property that happens to be located on the same road a city council member lives on. The city has never filed an order against the property to abate the property’s unsightly condition although it could have easily done so in the past.

If you don’t think it’s okay to arbitrarily choose who to go after with these vague newly defined public nuisances (contagious diseases is one!) I suggest dialing in to the council meeting at 7pm and speaking up. Info below:

To listen live to the Minnetrista City Council meeting, call +1 (312) 757-3121 and enter meeting Access Code 618-238-485 #, or join the meeting from your computer, tablet or smartphone by accessing the following: https://global.gotomeeting.com/join/618238485
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Join the meeting via Go To Meeting (meeting information listed above), and join between 6:50pm and 7:00pm, and when asked by the City Administrator, identify yourself with your name, home address, and reason for wanting to address the City Council. As with all PTBH comments, remarks are limited to three minutes per speaker. No City Council action will be taken, although the Council may refer issues to staff for follow up or consideration at a future meeting.

Contagious disease defined as public nuisance – Minnetrista draft

Twice during my term on the Minnetrista City Council the matter of adopting a new nuisance ordinance (p.27) came up because of an unsightly property on Deer Creek Road. Both times the council was given the option of modifying the nuisance ordinance and chose not to do so. Why? Because it wasn’t necessary. Instead it was suggested the city write a demand letter to the property owner. It was also suggested the city file an abatement order against the property if the owner refused to cooperate. The city never did the latter.

Now the matter is before the current council once again. The city’s contract attorney from Kennedy & Graven has provided the council with a memorandum recommending all kinds of modifications and additions, justifying why each are needed. They get paid by the hour, by the way. They also state in their memo they “were not able to prepare a redline” showing the proposed changes, ostensibly because the new ordinance replaces the old one. Sorry but that is just plain irresponsible to omit a redlined version and shows a lack of respect for the council and city residents.

The section on “Additional Public Nuisances Defined” includes a total of 18 extra nuisances including:

Subd. 10. The public exposure of persons having a contagious disease or condition which
endangers public health, safety or welfare.

Subd. 12. Accumulations of animal waste, litter or manure which pose a risk of pollution of
ground or surface waters or which endanger public health, safety or welfare.

Many of these additions contain overly vague language (pose a risk?) that could conceivably make any Minnetrista residents with an animal a violator of the code.

Below is a letter I wrote to the Mayor and Council today on the matter. I suggest if you’re concerned about property rights in Minnetrista you may want to do the same or attend the next Work Session where it will be discussed on May 3. Download the Work Session Agenda when it’s posted next week and dial into the meeting. Email addresses for city council: lwhalen@ci.minnetrista.mn.us; pmortenson@ci.minnetrista.mn.us; jtschumperlin@ci.minnetrista.mn.us; amacgregor@ci.minnetrista.mn.us; creffkin@ci.minnetrista.mn.us

Dear Madam Mayor and Council Members,

As you know the previous council discussed the city’s nuisance code on two separate occasions (2018 and 2020) for the same reason it has come before the current council, the property on Deer Creek Road. The previous council did not agree to amend the city’s current nuisance code although it was given that option.

One of the suggestions I made in April 2020 was to take steps to abate the property, which was never done. I don’t know why it was never done. The matter just sort of went away but that question needs to be asked.  Attached is a model order for abatement from the League of Minnesota Cities. I would recommend asking the city why, instead of spending thousands of dollars on attorney’s fees to draft a new ordinance, they don’t just file an abatement order on the problem property.

The previous council did not feel it was responsible to incur the cost of drafting a new ordinance after discussing the matter at length. Chief Falls indicated there were only 2 properties, at the time, he was aware of that were problems.

There is no reason whatsoever to add the plethora of new nuisance definitions to the city code when the city could just file an abatement order. Why hasn’t that been done?

Shannon Bruce

Where did this nuisance language come from?!

Last week the Minnetrista city council took up the matter of modifying its nuisance ordinance primarily because of a single property on the same road a council member lives on. Several council meetings on this property over the last few years always ended in agreement, by most, that this was an isolated occurrence, not impacting the community-at-large, and with council members not willing to spend money on attorneys to rewrite an ordinance that had served the city well and had provided resolution to virtually all nuisance complaints in the city with the exception of this one. The property is located on a large parcel in rural Minnetrista.

The new nuisance ordinance now being drafted by attorneys from Kennedy & Graven includes a section titled “Additional Public Nuisances Defined.” In a memo from Kennedy & Graven to the council it states this “ordinance tracks closely to the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) model nuisance ordinance” and included the following additional public nuisance definition:

“The public exposure of persons having a contagious disease or condition which
endangers public health, safety or welfare.”

Yes, you read that correctly. The League of Minnesota Cities is quietly slipping in municipal control and enforcement over where Minnesota residents can freely go and giving cities authority to decide what amounts to a contagious disease or condition. A common cold could be construed as a contagious disease or condition and punishable as a violation of the city’s ordinance. The City of Medina, who also employ Kennedy & Graven as their legal counsel, have already adopted these new “nuisances” into their city code.

It appears the Minnetrista council was uncomfortable with some of the language provided by Kennedy & Graven and will likely remove this contagious disease language from the new Minnetrista ordinance. It should, however, give Minnetrista residents pause that the city’s law firm, who should be representing residents, is attempting to include the LMC’s invasive language into ordinances for cities it represents.

Readers can see the draft nuisance ordinance on page 44 of the March 15 work session packet.

Ground mounted solar ordinance on tonight’s agenda

After residents vehemently protested an application for a large and unsightly industrial ground mounted solar energy system in western Minnetrista, last November the city council slapped a moratorium on ground mounted solar systems. The ill conceived ordinance written in 2015 that allowed them is now in front of the Planning Commission tonight for revision.

Interested residents can listen in by calling the number at the top of the Minnetrista Planning Commission agenda. The suggested revisions to the ordinance are there as well, beginning on page 9.

Mediacom awarded grant for Minnetrista

Last fall, Mediacom, in partnership with the City of Minnetrista, applied for the Border-to Border Broadband Grant Program through the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED.) The purpose of the program is to aid in the expansion of broadband service to areas of Minnesota that are unserved or underserved.

This project will consist of three separate buildouts including areas in Ox Yoke Circle on the north side of Minnetrista, Northview Drive up to the southern edge of Whale Tail Lake, and Farmhill Road between St. Bonifacious and Six Mile Creek. The project will serve 80 unserved households and will provide speeds of 1 Gbps download and 50 Mbps upload. Construction for the project has an estimated completion date of December 2021.

Crickets on school district favor…for now.

As readers may know there was a public hearing Monday night on the Sunnyfield Road project. The Westonka School District, the only assessed property, and the only property, along the route, had submitted a letter to Mayor Whalen asking the city to waive the normal 5% interest on the school district’s assessment which it would have 20 years to pay. The city has proposed paying for 60% of the project cost and the school district 40%. That is already a deviation from the city’s policy of a 50-50 split for everyone else who is assessed for reconstructions. I wrote about that issue here.

It was anticipated that a school district representative, perhaps Westonka School District Superintendent Kevin Borg himself, would’ve addressed the city council at the public hearing Monday night since his letter to the mayor appeared in the council’s agenda packet. Surprisingly, no one from the school district spoke and there was no mention of the interest rate at all during the meeting. That doesn’t mean the matter has gone away, however.

Perhaps the school district would like the issue to fade from public scrutiny a bit before bringing it up again. That next opportunity will be the assessment hearing, likely in May, when the council will formally adopt the assessed amount as well as the interest rate.

Minnetrista taxpayers will be watching then, just as they were Monday night.

More favors from Whalen?

As a result of a compromise at the council’s last meeting January 4, the Westonka School District will pay 40% and Minnetrista taxpayers will pay 60% of the Sunnyfield Road reconstruction costs for the road to the high school.

You may remember Mayor Whalen had advocated the city pick up 80% of the cost for her buddies at the school district but lost that battle January 4, no doubt a disappointment to Westonka School Superintendent Kevin Borg and school board members that worked tirelessly to get Whalen reelected last November.

Now Mr. Borg is back begging Whalen for another special favor. He’s asking the city to waive the interest on paying back the assessment…completely…something the city has never done for other property owners it has assessed.

Think about this. One of the reasons the city’s policy is to cover 50% of road reconstruction costs for property owners and not charge property owners for 100% of the cost is because property owners are taxpayers and some of those tax dollars should be used for their roads. The Westonka School District is not a taxpayer. The Westonka School District is only a consumer of city services (snow removal, public safety) but actually pays nothing for those city services as residents do.

According to city policy, if your street needs reconstruction you, as a property owner, and your neighbors along the project route would be assessed 50% of the project cost which can be paid back over 20 years. The interest rate you and your neighbors would pay the city, unless you chose to pay it back all at once, would be 5%. There have been a handful of exceptions over the years to the policy for some low-density areas but for the most part the city has been consistent in applying its policy.

Mr. Borg, in his letter to Mayor Whalen, claims that it would be reasonable not to charge the school district interest on their assessment because the city isn’t bonding for the project and it’s being paid for with MSA dollars. So what? Whether or not the city bonds for the project has absolutely no bearing on whether the city charges property owners interest. Why should the school district be exempt when no one else is? We’ve never exempted other property owners from interest payments when MSA funds were used on their roads.

What Borg is doing in his letter to Whalen (on page 61) is what’s called “anchoring” in a negotiation. By asking for the interest to be waived completely he’s hoping the council might come back with a compromise and lower it from the 5% city policy, especially if Whalen pleads his case. I hope they have the backbone to say no.

By virtue of the fact the school district isn’t a taxpayer in Minnetrista, has a budget close to ten times that of the city’s, is primarily responsible for the road’s condition and whose students are from many other cities, not just Minnetrista, they should not be asking Minnetrista taxpayers for favors. They should be glad we’re not making them pay 100%.

To listen live to the Minnetrista City Council meeting Monday 2/1/2021, call +1 (872) 240-3212 and enter meeting Access Code 604-552-845 #, or join the meeting from your computer, tablet or smartphone by accessing the following: https://global.gotomeeting.com/join/604552845
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Mayor’s attempt to pay back friends?

Minnetrista’s road assessment policy is to assess property owners along a project route (gravel to paved or for reconstruction) 50% of the project cost with the remaining 50% paid by the city. The Sunnyfield Road reconstruction planned this year has only one property owner along the route, the Westonka School District. Mayor Whalen, at the council’s work session last night, thought they should get a break. She suggested only assessing them 20%.

Of course it couldn’t possibly be because members of the school board and Westonka School’s Superintendent were instrumental in her reelection (view story here). Maybe it’s because Whalen thinks Minnetrista residential property owners should be assessed more than a school district with a budget almost ten times that of the city and a much larger tax base over which to spread the cost? Or perhaps she doesn’t realize that school bus traffic and student/parent traffic are largely responsible for the road’s condition and much of that traffic comes from outside Minnetrista.

Yes, there have been exceptions to the city’s assessment rate on a few occasions in areas with low density but the majority of Minnetrista’s road projects are assessed at 50%. That is policy.

Both council members Reffkin and MacGregor responded to Whalen’s suggestion to lower the rate for the school with their opinion that the 50% policy should stand. Whalen kept pressing for her school district friends as council members Mortenson and Tschumperlin remained silent, ostensibly gauging the political wind direction. MacGregor finally proposed 40% in the spirit of compromise and Reffkin supported that although somewhat reluctantly.

Mortenson and Tschumperlin saw the compromise as palatable and indicated they could “probably” support it but Whalen kept pushing for her friends. She then said “What about 35%? Would any of you support 35%?” Ultimately Whalen’s valiant effort went unrewarded and the 40% rate prevailed for the school.

Got to give Whalen credit for standing up for her friends if not for Minnetrista taxpayers. Readers can listen to the recorded January 19 work session.

Minnetrista Internet service plan discussion Tuesday night

There are few topics more agitative in rural Minnetrista than internet service, especially now that its become a necessity for most of us to function at work, school, purchase goods and services or conduct business of any kind. It is an infrastructure as necessary as roads, water and sewer but isn’t seen that way by many rural cities and townships.

If the roads are blocked by an accident, snow, or natural disaster the city will rush resources to clear the roads but if internet services go down it’s not their concern. It should be. Access to high-speed internet is at the top of most home buyer’s lists these days and property values in Minnetrista will reflect that. Having a vibrant real estate market is important to the city’s financial health.

If potential buyers happen to check out social media sites like Nextdoor.com, however, they will find pages and pages of complaints about slow speeds, unreliable connections and nonexistent customer service from major providers in Minnetrista and surrounding area.

I’m hoping the discussion Tuesday night focuses on proactive things the city can do like removing obstacles to entry for internet service providers, establishing a fund as we’ve done for road maintenance to finance this critical infrastructure, and having a staff person attend the virtual meetings of the Minnesota Broadband Task Force to stay up to speed on the resources they offer rural areas. Inviting providers to Minnetrista without making changes to how we do business with them will not result in better internet services for anyone.

Hiring a consultant may sound like a great idea but many consultants have loyalties to specific providers or technologies and ferreting out those biases can be a challenge if you’re an outsider. Minnetrista would do well to find some savvy residents to help it in this endeavor if they really want to get something done. But that’s the question, do they?

Residents may download the work session packet for Tuesday night’s discussion and listen in by calling (872) 240-3412 and enter meeting Access Code 711-795-981 #, or join the meeting from your computer, tablet or smartphone by accessing the following: https://global.gotomeeting.com/join/711795981
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