The inside story on Minnetrista local issues: This blog is to inform citizens and give them a perspective on matters of importance in Minnetrista, MN. Opinions posted here are my own and do not reflect official positions of any public body or official.
You wouldn’t buy a car from merely reading the manufacturer’s ads would you? If you live in Minnetrista in either the Mound Westonka or Watertown school district there is a very important vote on Tuesday: $Millions of dollars in school referendums that will impact you and your community for the next decade and beyond. I urge everyone to get information from sources other than the school districts promoting the referendums. These referendums are intentionally held in non-election years counting on low voter turnouts. Here is where you can vote on Tuesday, November 5:
Watch a representative from Ehlers, the city’s contracted financial advising firm, who gets paid to help cities borrow money, defend Minnetrista’s weak debt profile from Standard & Poors in this video from Monday night’s council meeting, rationalizing that because everyone else does it, it really isn’t a big deal. Well, of course a firm specializing in debt issuance would see it that way.
Minnetrista’s debt service is 18.6% of total government fund expenditures and that is high, according to Standard & Poors which isn’t a firm specializing in debt issuance. They specialize in evaluating the credit worthiness of organizations. Perhaps we should heed the assessment from S&P rather than go along with the don’t worry be happy advice from our debt issuance firm.
Because a city can just take the money out of constituents’ pockets it carries an obligation to make sure it manages debt responsibly. Even the Ehlers rep estimated Minnetrista would need to almost cut its debt service in half (reduce it to 10%) to change the S&P rating. Minnetrista needs to put the brakes on. Apparently so do a lot of other Minnesota cities.
Monday night’s discussion centered around refinancing some G.O. bonds and the city’s ratings relative to receiving favorable bids. Having a AA++ rating is a good thing and the city’s finances are strong partly because our residents are relatively affluent which translates into what they call a “high tax capacity” (there is plenty more to take) and there are funds stashed away in “special” funds that aren’t being used. But bond ratings are not the point here. Saddling future generations with debt that keeps growing is the point.
The eight page Standard & Poors rating wasn’t in our council packet or available to the public prior to the meeting. I had to request a copy of the rating assessment to review prior to the meeting and asked that it be provided to the council. They had planned to hand it out during the council meeting. If residents would like a copy they can call city hall.
“There are three types of lies – lies, damn lies, and statistics.” – Benjamin Disrael
Local governments want more of your money but they want you to hand it over without a fight so they pull out statistics to convince taxpayers to open their wallets. Here are just a few things to look for to see if you’re being manipulated by the numbers.
Omissions: Leaving out something significant that, if known, would lead the reader to a different conclusion from the data presented:
When a city, in an attempt to waylay fears of a tax increase, says their tax rate has stayed the same or is lower than it was before but neglects to reveal that your property valuation has increased substantially and, therefore, the amount you pay is going up.
When the city tells you residents are willing to accept a property tax increase for road maintenance without telling you that 64% of Minnetrista residents indicated they opposed any property tax increase for roads in the community survey (see below).
Using percentages from a small sample size: When a survey uses an insignificant sample size, percentages will always be misleading:
Minnetrista’s community survey asks respondents if they would favor or oppose an increase in property taxes for city street repair/maintenance and 64% said they’d oppose an increase. A very small number (128 people out of 7,000 city residents) indicated they’d favor an increase. That subset of respondents (128 people) was questioned to see how much more they’d be willing to pay. When they indicated various amounts ($5-$30/mo) it was then repeated over and over again that, according to the community survey, the majority of people (which was actually just 118 people: 92% of the 128) are willing to accept an increase in their city property taxes for roads, when, in fact, 64% surveyed said they were opposed. Starting to get the picture of how this works?
Faulty polling: How questions are phrased can influence responses dramatically. A deceptive polling strategy is to precede a question with a narrative designed to prejudice the response or to omit (see above) important data qualifiers. The examples below use a combination of both omission and faulty polling strategies:
Minnetrista’s community survey precedes a question (#49) about whether or not the city should build a gun range saying “there is an unfinished gun range” and “if finished” it would be used by residents. Communicating something as “unfinished” implies that it has been started (which it has not) but not completed and influences a positive response since people generally are averse to leaving things “unfinished”. The truth of the matter is there is empty space with nothing in it that could be built out as a gun range. This survey question also omitted the fact there would be significant, ongoing annual operational and maintenance costs that will increase residents’ taxes over and above the build out costs. Had that been revealed and the phrasing less biased, the responses would likely have been much different. Even so there was little support to use tax dollars to fund the build out, and one would assume no support for tax dollars to fund the maintenance (if they had been aware of it).
This one is my favorite: This survey question precedes another (74) regarding the approval rating of the Mayor and Council with a question that reveals the majority of respondents know “very little” to “nothing at all” about the work of the Mayor and Council but then goes on to ask if they approve or disapprove of the job the Mayor and Council are doing. Remember that next time you hear about the council’s 80% approval rating. Apparently ignorance is bliss.
Community surveys are merely vehicles designed to justify tax increases and reelect incumbents that support them.
Words really do matter. That one little word, “may,” that appears in Minnetrista’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan matters a lot. I wrote about it last month here and also outlined several other Comp Plan concerns having to do with a private well ordinance, GreenStep Cities, inflated projected water use, and managing a rebate program for water efficient appliances.
When I saw WSB’s (Minnetrista’s contracted city engineering firm) response to all of these concerns they appeared to take most of them seriously and advised we could remove the private well ordinance, GreenStep Cities option as well as the rebate program from the Comp Plan. They also recalculated the city’s projected water use more accurately. I didn’t understand their response, however, to the “one little word” concern:
Bruce remarks: 2. Page 347: There is an overly broad statement made here that gives the Met Council cart blanche to regulate almost anything they want to in Minnetrista. The word used is “may” in this context: “The City of Minnetrista ….will not permit activity that may conflict with the Metropolitan System Policy Plans.” That word, “may”, tacitly gives the Met Council the right to shut down anything, ANY activity, they think “may conflict with their plans.” They could make golf carts illegal, they could make cars illegal for that matter. The bar is set very low, in fact there is no bar set when you use the word may. I would suggest merely removing that word and changing “conflict” to “conflicts”. They would at least have to prove something conflicts with their plan instead of say something might.
WSB Response: WSB can make the change from “will” to “may” and “conflict” to “conflicts” on page 9-1.
After some back and forth, however, the consensus from most councilmembers was that simply removing the word “may,” as I had earlier suggested, and making “conflict” plural was acceptable. Words matter, especially where our city’s autonomy is concerned.
The Minnetrista 2040 Comprehensive Plan will have these changes made after which it will be sent to the Met Council for approval and then submitted to the city council for final adoption. Minnetrista has until April 2020 to adopt its final 2040 Comprehensive Plan (9 months following Met Council’s initial approval which was July 2019) but it could be adopted much sooner depending on the Met Council’s timeline for approval.
What’s wrong with Minnetrista and the Met Council? One little word, “may,” that appears in our 2040 Comprehensive Plan mandated by the Met Council. Here’s the sentence: “The City of Minnetrista…will not permit activity that mayconflict with the Metropolitan System Policy Plans.” That little word, “may,” tacitly gives the Met Council the right to shut down absolutely anything, any activity, they think “may” conflict with their plans, now or in the future. This overly vague term is intentional and designed to make Minnetrista comply with this unelected body’s vision of what it should be.
Watch this excellent history lesson on the Met Council and how they’ve grown from a small, regional governing body for water & sewer to usurping local control over your city. I’ve asked the city council to consider removing this word from our 2040 Comprehensive Plan before adopting it.
Exactly one year ago I wrote a post titled “Who is Our Minnetrista?” Little did I know what would be exposed over the course of the next 12 months. I only knew something was amiss but had no idea of the corruption, deception, and stronghold this group of people holds on our community until I filed a civil suit last November and began the discovery process which culminated in a ruling that held they had “corrupted the political process” in both the 2014 and 2018 elections and their leaders and candidates were fined.
Here is what I know now. The corruption isn’t limited to our mayor and a couple of council members (who all still sit on the council, btw). There are school board members who have been actively supporting this group with financial contributions and helping them recruit public officials to maintain their current power structure and taxing authority. There are also political committees like “YesWestonka” comprised of virtually the same people as “Our Minnetrista” whose goal to pass a $22M school bond referendum was successful primarily because they held the election in May instead of the November general election knowing a low voter turnout would benefit the measure. Now they have another referendum up for a vote in November 2019, not a general election either. Hmm.
I’ve also learned that the DFL is involved in this group with the DFL Senate District Chair being a financial contributor to the rogue “Our Minnetrista” political committee as well as a contributor to the campaign of the spouse of Westonka school board member Heidi Marty in his bid for election to the MN House of Representatives (D-Todd Mikkelson). This is one close-knit, happy family.
Is it any wonder, then, when the Westonka School District was invoiced for the Minnetrista mayor’s campaign mailings (apparently to avoid paying sales tax like her opponent had to) that the Westonka school district said nothing?
This last year has exposed the fact that a small group of people with vested interests in controlling millions of dollars of public funds in our community are doing just that. They consist of DFL leadership, school board members, elected public officials, ex-city employees, and political committees backing their initiatives that somehow always end in tax increases.
That’s how much more someone with a $500K market valuation will pay annually if the revenue referendums proposed by Watertown School District pass in November:
Westonka Schools also have a revenue referendum increasing school spending coming up for a vote November 5 as well. A $500K property would see an annual increase of approximately $121 in that district if it passes.
Both referendums provide for annual inflationary increases for the next ten years.
Watertown School District Voting:
Westonka School District Voting:
More information on both school districts’ referendums: