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.
It was very disappointing to see the preferential deal for the school district’s road assessment, masquerading as a “needed” policy change to the city’s special assessment policy, passed Monday night. Essentially Minnetrista’s special assessment policy has always carried an interest rate that has been the same for all assessed properties benefitting from an improvement. It never mattered, and shouldn’t have mattered, who or what entity owned the property. All property owners were assessed under the same rules.
Last January Westonka School District Superintendent Kevin Borg had asked for the school district to be treated differently in a letter to Mayor Whalen and the city council. Some may remember Mayor Whalen had advocated the city pick up 80% of the cost (policy has been 50%) for her buddies at the school district and to reduce their interest rate to 2% (Borg had asked for 0% interest on the 20 year assessment) but lost that battle with the city council on January 4, no doubt a disappointment to Kevin Borg and school board members that worked tirelessly to get Whalen reelected last November.
Mr. Borg was expected to attend the following council work session on the matter, presumably to plead his case, but never showed.
Amazingly, just days before the assessment hearing on the project, a proposal came forward that the city’s special assessment policy was old and needed updating. Yeah, that’s the ticket! Let’s update the city’s policy based on whether or not Minnesota State Aid (MSA) funds will be used, knowing that this school district project will use MSA funds. Nevermind that all other Minnetrista road projects in the past, that had used MSA funds, were assessed uniformly, under the same rules as all other benefitting property owners, as has always been the case for road improvements throughout the city.
And Borg gets his deal and no one can say it was a “deal” because they only followed policy.
I see on the city’s council agenda for June 7 under “consent agenda” (items that don’t get discussed) that the Westonka School District is going to get their special assessment “deal” at the expense of Minnetrista taxpayers.
Minnetrista’s special assessment policy has always been, regardless of how a road project is funded, to charge properties benefiting from the project, an interest rate that has averaged around 5% until the assessment is paid off. Well, not any more.
Why is the policy changing? Because the city is doing a road project along Sunnyfield Road and the only benefitting property is the Westonka School District. The school asked for a “deal” and the council wouldn’t give it to them, so Mayor Whalen came up with a brilliant idea to change the city’s policy so it couldn’t be called a “deal.” See page 26 of the council packet.
Westonka Schools, if the new policy is adopted Monday night, will only pay 2% interest on their special assessment for the road project. The school district is funded largely by communities outside of Minnetrista as the school district encompasses parts of Mound, Spring Park, Independence and Orono. Many Minnetrista residents are in the Watertown, Waconia, and Delano school districts. If I were a Minnetrista resident paying 5% on a special assessment…oh wait, I am!…I’d be pretty mad.
The school district could choose to pay no interest if it wanted to by paying off the assessment all at once when the project is completed. To be sure they are happier letting Minnetrista taxpayers shoulder the burden.
As readers may know there was a public hearing Monday night on the Sunnyfield Road project. The Westonka School District, the only assessed property, and the only property, along the route, had submitted a letter to Mayor Whalen asking the city to waive the normal 5% interest on the school district’s assessment which it would have 20 years to pay. The city has proposed paying for 60% of the project cost and the school district 40%. That is already a deviation from the city’s policy of a 50-50 split for everyone else who is assessed for reconstructions. I wrote about that issue here.
It was anticipated that a school district representative, perhaps Westonka School District Superintendent Kevin Borg himself, would’ve addressed the city council at the public hearing Monday night since his letter to the mayor appeared in the council’s agenda packet. Surprisingly, no one from the school district spoke and there was no mention of the interest rate at all during the meeting. That doesn’t mean the matter has gone away, however.
Perhaps the school district would like the issue to fade from public scrutiny a bit before bringing it up again. That next opportunity will be the assessment hearing, likely in May, when the council will formally adopt the assessed amount as well as the interest rate.
Minnetrista taxpayers will be watching then, just as they were Monday night.
As a result of a compromise at the council’s last meeting January 4, the Westonka School District will pay 40% and Minnetrista taxpayers will pay 60% of the Sunnyfield Road reconstruction costs for the road to the high school.
You may remember Mayor Whalen had advocated the city pick up 80% of the cost for her buddies at the school district but lost that battle January 4, no doubt a disappointment to Westonka School Superintendent Kevin Borg and school board members that worked tirelessly to get Whalen reelected last November.
Now Mr. Borg is back begging Whalen for another special favor. He’s asking the city to waive the interest on paying back the assessment…completely…something the city has never done for other property owners it has assessed.
Think about this. One of the reasons the city’s policy is to cover 50% of road reconstruction costs for property owners and not charge property owners for 100% of the cost is because property owners are taxpayers and some of those tax dollars should be used for their roads. The Westonka School District is not a taxpayer. The Westonka School District is only a consumer of city services (snow removal, public safety) but actually pays nothing for those city services as residents do.
According to city policy, if your street needs reconstruction you, as a property owner, and your neighbors along the project route would be assessed 50% of the project cost which can be paid back over 20 years. The interest rate you and your neighbors would pay the city, unless you chose to pay it back all at once, would be 5%. There have been a handful of exceptions over the years to the policy for some low-density areas but for the most part the city has been consistent in applying its policy.
Mr. Borg, in his letter to Mayor Whalen, claims that it would be reasonable not to charge the school district interest on their assessment because the city isn’t bonding for the project and it’s being paid for with MSA dollars. So what? Whether or not the city bonds for the project has absolutely no bearing on whether the city charges property owners interest. Why should the school district be exempt when no one else is? We’ve never exempted other property owners from interest payments when MSA funds were used on their roads.
What Borg is doing in his letter to Whalen (on page 61) is what’s called “anchoring” in a negotiation. By asking for the interest to be waived completely he’s hoping the council might come back with a compromise and lower it from the 5% city policy, especially if Whalen pleads his case. I hope they have the backbone to say no.
By virtue of the fact the school district isn’t a taxpayer in Minnetrista, has a budget close to ten times that of the city’s, is primarily responsible for the road’s condition and whose students are from many other cities, not just Minnetrista, they should not be asking Minnetrista taxpayers for favors. They should be glad we’re not making them pay 100%.
Minnetrista’s road assessment policy is to assess property owners along a project route (gravel to paved or for reconstruction) 50% of the project cost with the remaining 50% paid by the city. The Sunnyfield Road reconstruction planned this year has only one property owner along the route, the Westonka School District. Mayor Whalen, at the council’s work session last night, thought they should get a break. She suggested only assessing them 20%.
Of course it couldn’t possibly be because members of the school board and Westonka School’s Superintendent were instrumental in her reelection (view story here). Maybe it’s because Whalen thinks Minnetrista residential property owners should be assessed more than a school district with a budget almost ten times that of the city and a much larger tax base over which to spread the cost? Or perhaps she doesn’t realize that school bus traffic and student/parent traffic are largely responsible for the road’s condition and much of that traffic comes from outside Minnetrista.
Yes, there have been exceptions to the city’s assessment rate on a few occasions in areas with low density but the majority of Minnetrista’s road projects are assessed at 50%. That is policy.
Both council members Reffkin and MacGregor responded to Whalen’s suggestion to lower the rate for the school with their opinion that the 50% policy should stand. Whalen kept pressing for her school district friends as council members Mortenson and Tschumperlin remained silent, ostensibly gauging the political wind direction. MacGregor finally proposed 40% in the spirit of compromise and Reffkin supported that although somewhat reluctantly.
Mortenson and Tschumperlin saw the compromise as palatable and indicated they could “probably” support it but Whalen kept pushing for her friends. She then said “What about 35%? Would any of you support 35%?” Ultimately Whalen’s valiant effort went unrewarded and the 40% rate prevailed for the school.
John Adams: “”Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
Last I checked it’s illegal for a school district to use taxpayer funded school resources to influence elections. That is exactly what has occurred. As I was door knocking on Sunday a resident disclosed she had received an email regarding the Minnetrista mayoral election from Westonka Public Schools discrediting my campaign. Below is the email Mr. Kevin Borg, Superintendent of Westonka Public Schools, sent on September 22, 2020 to “Key Communicators” in the Westonka community. The many false statements contained therein are highlighted and numbered with facts below.
Fact #1: Mr. Borg makes the claim the Shannon Bruce for Mayor committee stated the invoice in question was “sent to the district.” She never made a claim it was “sent” to the district, only that it was “invoiced” to the school’s account. In fact it never was sent to the school for payment. The printer created the Westonka School District invoice, showing campaign expenses on it for Lisa Whalen’s mayoral campaign but never sent it to the school district. Instead, the printer’s sales person, who incidentally was an active member of her campaign committee (according to subpoenaed emails) sent the invoice to the Treasurer of the YesWestonka political committee who arranged for it to be paid by Whalen’s campaign committee manager, David Kolb (ex-Minnetrista police chief). Emails subpoenaed from Whalen’s campaign finance violations trial support the facts above.
Fact #2:The statement “The Westonka School district received an invoice from Tandem Printing” isFALSE. See Fact #1. The school never received an invoice because payment on that invoice occurred outside of the school district with Whalen’s campaign committee (Our Minnetrista/Minnetrista411) paying it directly so it wouldn’t be discovered.
Fact #3: The contact person on the invoice, Bill Latour, was the Treasurer of the YesWestonka political committee which was tasked to promote the Westonka School District’s $22M bond referendum. He was not a school employee but was intimately involved in school district finances and worked closely with Mr. Borg. He was the person that placed the order with the printer instructing them to use the school’s account, but intending to pay for it with the Whalen campaign funds. Presumably this was done to evade paying sales tax and/or take advantage of the school’s discount or postage rates.
Fact #4: Mr. Borg’s claim “We contacted Tandem Printing to explain that the invoice was sent to Westonka Schools in error and would not be paid” is FALSE. See Fact #1 and Fact #3. The invoice was never sent to Westonka Schools. Subpoenaed emails show the printer’s sales person gave it to YesWestonka and it was subsequently paid by Whalen’s campaign committee (Our Minnetrista/Minnetrista411). Why would Mr. Borg claim to have contacted the printer in 2014 when the school district was unaware of the invoice until it was discovered in 2019 during the discovery phase of the lawsuit against Lisa Whalen and her campaign committee?
Fact #5: Mr. Borg claims his demand letter to the Shannon Bruce for Mayor Committee was prompted by a Youtube video released in August 2020. Mr. Borg was first made aware of the invoice in question in February of 2019. He was also aware of several social media posts that same year regarding the invoice subsequent to that date, all of which stated the same facts contained in the August video. After knowing about the invoice and ignoring it for over a year and a half he decided, two days before voting began for the Minnetrista mayoral election on September 16, 2020, to suddenly make claims of false statements by the Shannon Bruce for Mayor committee.
Fact #6: Mr. Borg claims his communication with Shannon Bruce was “private” when he had, in fact, copied the Westonka School Board on his email and one of them had subsequently provided it to Lisa Whalen’s campaign committee who used it, in addition to some of their own misrepresentations, in a post on social media, using the Westonka School logo, in an attempt to discredit the Shannon Bruce for Mayor campaign.
Fact #7: Mr. Borg attached his demand letter to Ms. Bruce to his “Key Communicators” email claiming it “outlines the facts” but, in fact it contains known false statements he knew at the time were untrue. He neglected to attach any of the email exchanges between himself and Shannon Bruce whereby she requested a meeting to share her evidence with him that would prove the video and prior social media posts were entirely factual. Mr. Borg refused the meeting and has never, on any occasion, contacted Shannon Bruce regarding these matters prior to his September 16 letter making false allegations against her campaign.
Fact #8:Mr. Borg claims his communication, timed two days before voting began in the Minnetrista mayoral election, was not politically motivated. What other conclusion can be drawn when he chose to ignore the matter for over a year and a half and then, suddenly, decided two days before voting begins that it was now time to address it? Why then, in his email to “Key Communicators” does he ask them to share this “news with others as appropriate” if not to discredit the Shannon Bruce for Mayor campaign?
There is a political machine at work here that has controlled Minnetrista for years and it not only includes the Mayor and her past campaign committee “Our Minnetrista/Minnetrista 411”, the YesWestonka political committee, several school board members, current and former council members, but sadly it now appears our own Westonka School Superintendent. I am saddened by that and what that means to our community.
It is illegal for a taxpayer funded public school to intentionally influence an election but that is exactly what has occurred in Mr. Borg’s communication to Westonka Schools “Key Communicators.” He has attempted to discredit a mayoral candidate with known falsehoods and unsubstantiated allegations designed to influence the Minnetrista mayoral election. Minnetrista has an opportunity to stop this abuse of power in our community.