Mound Fire Department awarded $151K federal grant!

Congratulations to Mound Fire Chief Greg Pederson, Vicki Weber and staff for their hard work in obtaining a $151,758 federal grant to replace Mound Fire Department’s 17 year old Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) units!

MFD Grant

The Minnetrista area is served by both the Mound and St. Boni Fire Departments.

Press Release:

MOUND FIRE AWWARDED FEDERAL GRANT OF $151,758
Mound, MN, August 13, 2020: On July 31, 2020 the Mound Fire Department was awarded a federal grant of $151,758 from U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program. The AFG grant program is federally funded with goals to improve fire department operations, with a focus on firefighter Health and Safety.
This grant will fund the purchase of 22 new Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) units. SCBA are the air tanks and masks that firefighters wear when entering a hazardous or smoke filled environment. This AFG Grant allows us to replace all of our old-obsolete SCBA units that are now 17 years old. The new equipment will be a substantial upgrade to meet the up-to-date National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Safety Standards (our existing SCBA units are non-compliant and considered to be obsolete).
This grant award is very exciting news for our dedicated staff of 40. The primary benefactor of this grant will be the Mound firefighters. Nonetheless, the impact of this grant does not stop with our firefighters, or the 15,840 residents we serve, and $2.60 billion in property values we protect.
The grant program requires and 5% match, therefore the fire department budget must contribute $7,587 which is a relatively small amount of the entire project cost of $159,346. Our administrative staff is proud of our achievements with regard to grant awards. Over the past 7 years our fire department has added $515,449.20 in revenue through donations, fund raising efforts and grants.

http://www.ShannonBruceForMayor.com

 

Recyling & organics discussion – competition for recycle contract not supported at work session 5/4

The city of Minnetrista’s contract for recycling (not including organics) is due to increase 41% in a few months and then go up another 4% each year after that for the term of the 5 year contract. A suggestion to do an RFP (request for proposal) in order to encourage the city’s current contractor, Waste Management, to be competitive was met with no support.

The reasons given in opposition to competition were: 1) It would take staff time to issue an RFP; 2) Residents might be upset if they had to swap out containers with a new company or change pickup schedules; 3) A nearby city did an RFP and ended up keeping their original contractor (Question: how much more would they have paid if they hadn’t done the RFP?); and 4) The savings resulting from an RFP might not amount to much.

Minnetrista residents are going to see an increase in their recycling charges regardless of whether or not Minnetrista implements organics recycling because of pressure from organics recyclingHennepin County that will ultimately result in withholding 50% of state subsidies to cities (subsidies previously used to offset regular recycling costs) that don’t offer an official organics recycling program. It’s not enough to just let people decide if they want to recycle organics on their own without an “official” city program. Many haulers already offer organics recycling if people wish to request it. I’m aware of one that even offers free organics recycling in St. Boni. The organics recycling discussion will continue as we try to understand exactly what criteria must be met in order to hang on to state subsidies, or if we just let them go.

Some of the challenges for Minnetrista are the large number of rural households as well as households  in more densely populated developments within the city. The costs for haulers to service densely populated areas is a lower cost “per household” than to service the sparsely populated rural areas. It’s difficult to find other cities with which to compare apples-to-apples costs. Another factor affecting costs these days is also the reality that recycled goods don’t fetch what they used to on the market.

Competition is the best way to keep prices down, and if our current recycle contractor is competitive in the RFP process we may not have to switch companies, containers, schedules, etc. It would, however, require a few hours of staff time and a majority of council members’ support which it doesn’t seem to have. www.ShannonBruceForMayor.com

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Trick or Trees?

If you want to adopt a policy in Minnetrista that creates future city liabilities and know there won’t be money available for those future liabilities what do you do? You do what Mayor Whalen suggested Monday night and that is, when the money runs out you just change the policy and declare the city won’t be responsible anymore.

tree fundWe are talking about the city’s tree fund that has a current balance of over $416,000, dollars contributed by developers that took out more trees than allowed and had to pay into the fund. That money has been sitting idle, not being used (Minnetrista has no shortage of trees) and the balance continues to grow, but once the city is developed the deposits to that fund will stop.

special funds2Knowing this tree fund has been sitting unused for years I’ve suggested we should look at using part of it for road maintenance since that seems to be the most challenging aspect of our finances and is the primary reason given each year for increasing the tax levy. There are other “special” funds with balances of hundreds of thousands of dollars that have been sitting relatively idle for years as well (see highlighted chart).

Interestingly, after these many years, staff recently decided it was time to discuss establishing a “tree replacement policy” to use these funds to replace trees planted in right-of-way areas on private property.

I have no issues with replacing diseased trees along rights-of-ways because our housing development HOAs and other property owners do not cause tree disease. That is a legitimate use of these funds to beautify our boulevards. But private property owners (or HOAs) are responsible for the care and maintenance of all trees and landscaping on private property, not the city. If the city assumes liability for replacing trees caused by neglect or any cause other than disease it is taking on more liability than it should, in my humble opinion.

The council work session discussion ended with staff being given direction to replace all dead trees in rights-of-way areas regardless of the cause. Votes are not taken at work sessions but had there been mine would have been a “No.” It was stated during our work session that we currently are not aware of any diseased trees at this time. I guess you never know when a tree pandemic will hit that requires using up the entire fund. Meanwhile residents are demanding better roads and being told their taxes will need to go up to get them.  www.ShannonBruceForMayor.com

 

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Exposure to light affects growth

Exposure to light affects growth…in government and taxes. I was concerned when I heard the retirement of Mound’s annual bond payment of $282,000 on their city hall building, which was coming to an end in 2022, was referred to as a “windfall” and conversations ensued around how to spend that money after the building was paid off (see previous post “Windfall dilemma” here).

abstract beach bright clouds

As you may know Minnetrista pays approximately $75,000 annually toward Mound’s bond payment (Minnetrista contracts with Mound for fire services) and has done so since 2004 and will have paid over $1.3 million by the end of 2022.

I asked for this matter to be put on a Minnetrista city council agenda. My belief was, and is, that Minnetrista’s $75K annual payment should stop once the bond is retired. Period. Under no circumstances is it reasonable to support bundling this $75K payment into our annual contract for services or to let it continue being used past 2022 for anything other than what it was originally intended. If there are other things Mound Fire needs in the future, i.e., new fire trucks, apparatus, radios, or administrative costs, those items should be budgeted just like anything else, justified and allocated to the cities they contract with.

My request for the agenda item was granted and staff invited Mound’s Fire Chief to present to the council before our work session discussion.

Although it was a challenge to get the discussion focused on my primary concern it eventually was and I was pleased to find support from other council members that agreed conversations about what to do with this “windfall” shouldn’t be entertained.

 

 

 

 

First levy increase since 2012?! I don’t think so

Laker Dec 21 ArticleI blogged about the misuse of statistics back in October and how omitting information, leaving out something significant that, if known, would lead the reader/listener to a different conclusion from what was presented, could manipulate residents. Well, today our favorite local newspaper, The Laker, has been manipulated. But don’t blame the reporter. She was only reporting what she had read on the city’s slide presented at the December 2 public hearing on the 2020 levy increase which said:

“General Fund levy has not been increased since 2012 and had decreased from 2010 before that”

Somehow the reporter got the idea, from the statement above, that the tax levy in Minnetrista hadn’t gone up in eight years. Hmm, I wonder if residents in Minnetrista think the same thing. Anyone familiar with Minnetrista’s tax levy history knows there has been a tax levy increase almost every year since 2012 and we got another whopper 5.66% increase this year.

The byline in the December 21 story on page 18 states “Final levy close to that submitted in September, first increase since 2012” (Emphasis added). Oops, someone actually printed what they were told, and in a very public way. It’s always been okay to mislead people as long as it was done quietly, but headlines advertising the deception are another matter. The reporter was quickly contacted by the city and told to correct the online story and reminded that she should have run the story by the city.

How would a regular citizen interpret this slide?General Fun levy has not increased

Note also how the slide says “Staff is proposing an option reducing the net preliminary tax levy increase….” instead of the reality of staff proposing a 5.66% increase, which, by the way, was adopted on a 4-1 vote (Bruce dissenting).

So what was missing from this slide and why did the reporter need to correct the story? First, there are several funds, other than the “general fund,” included in the tax levy. There is a debt fund, a road maintenance fund, and a CIP levy that, in addition to the general fund levy, comprise the taxable levy. Most people don’t know that and the only reason this statement was on this slide is to take advantage of the fact that most people don’t know that.

Bottom line is the city of Minnetrista wants more of your money but they want you to hand it over without complaining. To do that requires manipulation of the facts and they are very good at that.

 

“Windfall” dilemma?

Would you keep remitting payments to the bank once your mortgage is paid off? Of course not. This seems to be a dilemma, however, for the city of Minnetrista that has been making payments to the city of Mound for the bond taken out in 2004 to pay for their municipal building/fire station. Minnetrista contracts with Mound for fire services and, along with the other cities Mound fire supports, has been paying $68K annually to help them pay off the bond. The bond will be retired in 2022. Here’s the brief discussion from our meeting December 2:

 

Mound fire youtube discussion
Discussion of $68K “windfall” to city of Mound

 

5.66% Increase in Minnetrista’s final tax levy for 2020

Minnetrista’s city council passed the final 2020 tax levy Monday night, increasing the levy 5.66% from the previous year, on a 4-1 vote. At our work session prior to the meeting I asked the council to consider using the unanticipated higher revenue from the city’s building permits to off-set the levy increase but the answer was a unanimous no. Despite a 43% general fund reserve (healthy by any standard) the council chose to apply the savings to the general fund reserve increasing it to 47%. I was the dissenting vote on the motion to pass the levy increase.

There are other reasons I dissented. Minnetrista has a backwards budgeting process where staff essentially submits a budget to the council and the council usually approves it without much modification. Generally we are given two or three budget options with varying increases (I’ve never seen an option without an increase that is far above our growth rate even considering inflation) and the council chooses one of the options as the preliminary tax levy in September and then adopts the final levy in December, which may vary slightly when year end projections are more certain.

In the private sector, as in many cities throughout the country, the budgeting process is different and begins with submitting the prior year’s budget and then justifying the increases, line by line, before adoption. That has not been the process in Minnetrista and there has been considerable resistance to the idea that it should be. How else can the council responsibly vote to support a tax levy if it doesn’t know what the justifications are behind all the increases? I’d like to see a budget committee comprised of two council members established to do this.

The budgeting process in Minnetrista needs to start out assuming every line-item increase, which isn’t just inflationary, needs justification. Until that happens I will be voting no, as I have in the past, on the city’s tax levy.

 

“Windfall” your money or Mound’s?

I serve on both the Mound Fire and St. Boni fire advisory commissions that provide fire service to the city of Minnetrista. Since the Mound fire station was built in 2004 Minnetrista taxpayers have been helping to pay off the bond taken out to build it. Minnetrista annually pays approximately $68K to the city of Mound who will be making their last annual payment of $283K on that debt in 2022.

raining moneyAt the November 20 Mound Fire Commission meeting (Mayor Whalen also serves on the Mound Fire Commission), this money was referred to as a “windfall” amounting to $283K per year that Mound’s supported cities need to decide how, or if, to spend going forward. There appeared to be a presumption at the meeting that the cities would keep remitting their shares of the annual bond payment, even after the bond is retired. This item will be on the January Mound Fire Commission agenda to decide how to allocate this “windfall” and whether or not to spend it on equipment, replenish general fund reserves, or other administrative costs.

I had requested this be put on our December 2 city council agenda for our entire council to weigh in on this decision since this is a significant amount of money ($68K annually x forever). Below is the email I sent to our city administrator (emphasis added in bold). He did not put it on the agenda and suggested, before doing so, that the other council members need to decide if they think this “warrants further discussion.” I, personally, believe this is a decision that belongs to the Minnetrista city council, not the Mound Fire Commission.

From: Shannon Bruce
Sent: Saturday, November 23, 2019 9:16 AM
To: Mike Barone
Subject: URGENT Agenda item for December 2 – Mound Fire $283K bond debt retirement

Hi Mike,

I think the council needs to weigh in on what Minnetrista’s direction to Mound Fire is going to be on the “windfall” resulting from the retirement of the annual $283K building bond payment in 2023. We need to give Mound direction at our January Fire Commission meeting and I’d like to request this be an agenda item for our December 2 council meeting so we can all be on the same page when we respond. This is a significant amount of money especially since it isn’t just a one-time windfall but could continue indefinitely. I also think it’s important it be an agenda item rather than a work session simply because of the significance. Here are some of the options to present to the council:

1) Retire the debt but keep Minnetrista’s future payments the same (allowing Mound Fire to use the annual windfall indefinitely for future CIP, Fire Dist organizational costs, other needs etc.);

2) Retire the debt and reduce Minnetrista’s portion going forward (Mound Fire would need to ask for additional CIP/Fire Dist org costs, other future needs);  

3) Allow using a portion of the first year’s windfall to replenish Mound Fire’s reserves that have been used in anticipation of the coming windfall but otherwise reduce Minnetrista’s portion going forward; or

4) Allow using a portion of the first year’s windfall to pay for Fire District organization costs in addition to replenishing Mound Fire’s reserves but otherwise reduce Minnetrista’s portion going forward.

There are, of course, other combinations of the above we may arrive at but because of the significance I think it’s important to have a vote on this.

Thanks,
Shannon

Preliminary tax levy increased 5.87% and 2040 Comp Plan to come back for study

Monday was a long night for the city council with a full and challenging agenda. Unfortunately for Minnetrista taxpayers the council chose to adopt (4 to 1) the highest increase (5.87%) presented by staff for the 2020 preliminary tax levy, despite having hundreds of thousands of dollars that have been sitting in unused special funds for years with no foreseeable liabilities against them. We continue to raise taxes and debt special fundswhile cannibalizing our fund reserves, all the while having access to these public funds which, in my opinion, belong in our general fund reserves to give an accurate view of the city’s balance sheet. If the city needs to buy trees we can budget for them. If the city needs to purchase additional emergency sirens we can budget for them. Setting up “special funds” keeps this money out of the public’s view and, more importantly, out of the general fund and gives a distorted view of the city’s finances, which is used to justify tax increases year after year.

The preliminary levy increase may be lowered before the final levy adoption in December but it cannot increase any higher. December 2, 2019 was the date set last night for public comment on the 2020 final levy adoption. You’ll hear some council members defend their votes citing that the preliminary increase was reduced last year before the final levy was adopted. What you won’t be told is that it was done without cutting a single penny of spending and irresponsibly dipping into our general fund reserves.

The city’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan was on the agenda for final approval Monday night. I had some serious concerns about it noted here having to do with private wells, GreenStep Cities, inaccurate numbers projecting future water demand, and making commitments to revise or adopt future ordinances without the council having access to the wording of these ordinances. Council agreed to bring the plan back to a work session in October for discussion.

 

City funds to subsidize tree sales for personal use?

treesSHOULD MINNETRISTA PUBLIC FUNDS BE USED TO SUBSIDIZE THE SALE OF TREES TO RESIDENTS FOR PERSONAL USE? Let me think about that. NO! This was discussed Monday night and will be the subject of an upcoming city council work session. Post your comments below. I’m interested in what residents think.  Here’s what I think: There are three legitimate roles for local city governments: 1) Infrastructure, 2) Public safety, and 3) Planning/Zoning (which includes public parks & recreation). Helping residents buy trees for their own personal use is not one of them.

When a city begins to stray from it’s core mission we begin to see the neglect of those critical services. There is no end to the things people want for their own personal use. Using public funds for anything other than our core mission invites higher taxes, entitlement, and is not good governance…in my humble opinion.