Put the brakes on

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.

S&P Debt RatingMinnetrista’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.

debt growthBecause 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.

 

Taxes or Tree Fund?

tree fundI’m going to go out on a limb here and assume the city’s *preliminary tax levy is not the most riveting topic of conversation at your dinner table. But what if you knew that you and your fellow Minnetrista taxpayers had socked away hundreds of thousands of dollars in an account, money that has been sitting there for years without any liabilities against it and none foreseeable, that could lower your city property taxes? Would that get your attention? It got mine.

Every year we’re given options from staff to increase the city’s budget. We are a growing city and that’s fine but increasing the city’s budget doesn’t necessarily have to translate into raising YOUR taxes. Growth should be providing the necessary dollars to keep city services humming along. This year the preliminary tax levy options from staff are a 5.87% increase or a 4.22% increase. The growth in the city’s market valuation from new construction this past year has only been 2.5%

So why, one may ask, if we’ve only grown by 2.5%, do we need to increase the city’s budget by more than that? At our Work session Monday night all council members except one indicated support for the higher 5.87% increase.

If you ask why they’ll say roads are the reason. Keep in mind we increased our roads budget 36% last year and 40% the year before. If we adopt the higher preliminary tax levy it would increase the road budget another 26% in 2020. These are extraordinary increases when our growth is in the lower single digits.

Anyone that doesn’t go along with the highest increase is accused of “kicking the can down the road” and doesn’t care about Minnetrista’s infrastructure. That’s an interesting statement given the fact our own city engineer’s report, rating Minnetrista’s roads, shows the vast majority of them are in “good-excellent” condition.

I argued we could choose the lower, 4.2% increase, which would still increase our road fund by 10.5% and add another $75K to the road fund by taking $75,000 out of the “Tree Fund,” (referenced above) which has a balance of over $367K in it, to achieve the same results to our Road Fund as the higher levy increase without placing the burden on the taxpayer. The answer was a resounding No.

Council is poised to adopt the 5.87% increase at our September 3 council meeting.

*Preliminary tax levy is set by September 30 and taxpayers are sent notices estimating next year’s taxes based on this. The actual tax levy adopted for 2020 may be lower but cannot exceed the preliminary tax levy.

WSB Engineering should be accountable for flawed design, not taxpayers

Last night’s council meeting included a proposal from WSB Engineering for engineering design and bidding services related to the repair of the watermain break in Woodland Cove on Kings Point Road that was temporarily fixed last winter. The construction repair costs are estimated at approximately $78,000 plus the WSB fees for engineering, bidding, and project management.

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WSB Engineering should pay for flawed design, not Minnetrista taxpayers.

Councilmember Molitor reminded the council this infrastructure was originally designed by WSB and completed just a few years ago with the start of the Woodland Cove development. He expressed concern that Minnetrista taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for these repairs caused by what he viewed as a flawed engineering design that led to the watermain break in the first place. He requested that WSB pay for the repairs or negotiate a reasonable settlement with the city.

I wholeheartedly agree. WSB will come back with another proposal next month addressing the matter. Thank you Councilor Molitor for standing up for Minnetrista taxpayers.

Minnetrista street improvements will come with assessments

LOCATION CHANGE 2/4 FROM PUBLIC SAFETY BLDG TO COUNCIL CHAMBERS, CITY HALL

THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS IN SPECIAL ASSESSMENTS are likely in your future if you live on Open House AssessmentsD’Chene Lane, D’Chene Circle, Kristin Lane or Ox Yoke Circle. The city has scheduled an Open House Monday, February 4, 2019 at 5pm at city hall in council chambers to inform residents about the 2019 street improvement projects. There will also be a public hearing on the projects at city hall on February 19, 2019.

The city council has not yet decided on the assessments. Below are the alternatives being considered:

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June 30, 2018

CLOSED DOOR MEETING ON WATER TOWER. As a result of questions raised about the commissioned water tower study at our last council meeting it was agreed to have some objective eyes review the report and to have the Fire Chiefs from St. Boni and Mound provide guidance on water storage needs for fire suppression. Fire suppression has been the primary reason given in the past for the urgency of a new water tower in the SW sector of the city but recent fire flow tests in that area have shown adequate flow rates well within standard requirements.

As the city council liaison on both the Mound and St. Boni Fire Commissions I informed the City Administrator that I expected to attend any meeting that was called with the two Fire Chiefs on this matter, my goal being to observe and ensure transparency. I was told, in no uncertain terms, he didn’t want me to attend and then I learned he met with both Fire Chiefs yesterday without informing me of the meeting. Not surprised. Millions are on the table and transparency will take a back seat.

As a council member and Minnetrista taxpayer I want to make sure we make decisions on infrastructure projects like this using unbiased advice from entities that don’t stand to profit from resulting contracts. If we legitimately need a water tower to support the SW area then we should build it but when the city insists on closed door meetings and intentionally avoids transparency it can’t help but breed distrust.

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.