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.
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:
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.
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 while 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.
RUBBER STAMP RIDES AGAIN. Apparently Minnetrista council members are fine voting to update city policy without knowing what the updates are. In a 4-1 vote last night that’s exactly what happened. Under the consent agenda at our council meeting was an item updating the city’s Post-Issuance Debt Compliance Policy. In the policy/backgrounder (pg 30) provided there was nothing summarizing what was being updated and council was not given the changes in any form where we could see what, exactly, was being changed. Call me crazy but I said I couldn’t vote to approve updates without knowing what they are. The Mayor felt otherwise and indicated that as long as the finance director and city attorney had read it, that should be enough for council. I was cut off when I attempted to remind the council that approving city policy is the council’s job, not the job of city staff. Apparently not in Minnetrista.
I attended the League of Women Voters city council candidate forum at Minnetrista city hall Thursday night. Once the video is available I’ll post it and give a recap. For now just wanted to post some information city council candidate Elroy Balgaard shared that night on the surrounding communities and how their preliminary tax levy changes compare to Minnetrista’s.This information didn’t go over well with the incumbents who asserted these communities can’t be compared but it should be noted that the city of Orono is quite comparable to Minnetrista in size and growth yet their increase is 40% lower than Minnetrista’s. Yes, there’s always a chance preliminary tax levies may come down before they are adopted in December but I’d be shocked if Minnetrista’s increase came down to even Wayzata’s at 4.29%.
Minnetrista grew 2.5% last year. Why do we need a 6.01% budget increase to pay for that?
Even though there will be a public hearing on December 3, the Minnetrista final 2019 tax levy will most likely, given history, be adopted without change that same evening and the public hearing is not likely to influence that. Sort of makes one wonder what the point is of having a public hearing.
“A DROP IN THE BUCKET”? The Minnetrista City Administrator thinks an estimate, provided by a frequently used engineering vendor, that is more than 60% higher than it should be is just “a drop in the bucket” when considering the total cost of a potential water project ($2.3M) in Hunters Crest.
At the September 17, 2018 council meeting a resident, structural engineer, addressed the council with concern over what he considered a “ridiculously high” estimate on conducting soil and water level testing on a preferred site in Hunters Crest. The two options by the city’s preferred vendor are below:
The gentleman addressing the council during the “Persons to be Heard” portion of the meeting contacted a soils engineer that indicated an overly generous estimate for this work shouldn’t be more than $6,000.
Perhaps a $4K-$5K overcharge to the city is a “drop in the bucket” to our city administrator who isn’t a taxpayer in Minnetrista. Multiply these “drops” that will accumulate as this water project is designed and built. Hmm, what’s 60% of $2.3M?