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.

January 17, 2018

1/16/18 Council Meeting Agenda: Capital Improvement Project Discussion:
Despite the fact that 90% of Minnetrista’s roads are in good to excellent condition (road condition assessments provided by WSB Engineering in 2017) and we’ve almost doubled our budget in 2018 for road improvements, the city’s pavement management plan is calling for another 36% increase in 2019. Our road budget in this plan will go from $350K (in 2018) to $800K (in 2022) over 4 years. That’s a 128% increase over 4 years! I have a problem with that and I said so last night. If you’re a Minnetrista taxpayer and these numbers are approved by the council you can expect to see some hefty tax levy increases on your property.

We’ve been able to keep 90% of our roads in good to excellent condition in the past without resorting to these extraordinary increases. I know it costs money to maintain our roads but we need to make sure the costs we’re putting in our pavement management plan aren’t inflated and that’s impossible to do without competition in that marketplace. This is one of the primary reasons I’ve requested the council consider rebidding the city’s professional services agreement for engineering services. That contract hasn’t been rebid for over 13 years.

A couple of quick highlights from our work session Tuesday evening:

Agenda Item 1: Code Compliance/Enforcement Options.
Properties posing a nuisance to neighbors is a challenging area of the law for cities to deal with. Residents want resolution to whatever the nuisance is but often times the legal recourse to address it doesn’t exist, especially in rural areas which comprise a great deal of properties in Minnetrista. My general take in these matters is to encourage neighbors to resolve disputes themselves without involving the city unless the nuisance is an obvious environmental or safety hazard endangering the community at large.

The impetus to all of this was a complaint from neighbors about a rural property with a lot of older vehicles parked around it and the neighbors consider it an eyesore. We discussed the possibility of modifying zoning ordinances, pursuing a civil public nuisance case, and other possible solutions presented by our legal counsel but many carried a considerable cost to Minnetrista taxpayers. We settled on having our legal counsel draft a letter to the property owner detailing the actions the city requires.

Agenda Item 2: Halstead Road Update:
The city had received an email from a resident complaining about several aspects of the Halstead Road project, which, by the way, isn’t complete yet. Complaints centered around the mini-roundabout and aesthetics of the guard rails. After asking the City Administrator how many formal complaints the city has received I was told there was just one, although Council Member Thoele indicated she had spoken to others. Paul Hornby, our contract city engineer, explained the project design and reasons for the mini roundabout and guard rails. There didn’t appear to be consensus from the Council to modify the design which would require costly changes although Mayor Whalen suggested some plantings might help obscure the guard rails.