Preliminary levy showed possibility of a 7.89 percent increase
By Terry Lehrke, News Editor
The Little Falls City Council set its preliminary 2013 budget and property tax levy at a 7.89 percent increasein September. The Council set it with the intent to bring it down, since a preliminary levy cannot be raised after being sent to the county, but can be lowered.
Monday night, the Council was presented with several options that decreased the preliminary budget and levy, with a recommendation from staff.
City department heads, led by part-time City Administrator Dan Vogt, recommended the option that showed a 2.83 percent increase; down more than 5 percent from the preliminary numbers.
A large reason for being able to decrease the preliminary numbers was the agreement that Vogt, hired by the city as a part-time city administrator in late August, will continue to serve the city part-time in 2013 at $50 per hour. This will save the city $75,000 over what was budgeted for a full-time administrator.
Vogt has also agreed to conduct contract negotiations with the unions city employees belong to, saving another $20,000 – $25,000, as the city will not have to hire an outside mediator.
“I sat down with department heads and we reviewed every line in the budget,” said Vogt. They looked at spending patterns over the past couple of years and “if they weren’t spending it, we didn’t budget for it,” he said of money set aside, but not entirely spent.
“If we didn’t need that amount of money, we took it out,” he said.
The city’s total budget is $9.209 million, with $3.348 million of that amount being levied against property taxes.
Vogt said the largest part of the city’s levy was its debt service. More than half of the city’s levy — $1.724 million — is levied to pay for debt.
In 2013, that amount is the highest in the years between 2009 – 2018. In 2014, that debt amount will start to come down, unless the city approves additional projects to add to it.
For every $1 levied for services, $1 is levied for debt, Vogt told the Council during an October budget meeting.
Local government aid (LGA) for 2013 is expected to remain the same as in 2012, at $2.089 million. It makes up nearly half (48.2 percent) of the city’s general fund budget revenue.
The 2013 budget accommodates budget requests of an additional $10,000 for the Pine Grove Zoo ($110,000) and $6,500 additional for the Morrison County Humane Society ($25,000) nearly $10,000 more than the $15,600 allocated in 2012. The Humane Society had requested $31,500 for 2013.
Other allocations of note include $25,000 to the street improvement fund, $5,000 for the 800 megahertz radio system and $15,000 for the replacement of historic street lights.
The Council voted to approve the budget and property tax levy at the 2.83 percent increase on a 6-2 vote.
Council Member at Large Brian-Paul Crowder was not at the meeting, so his vote was counted as a “no” vote. During the work session prior to the meeting, Crowder said he had concerns about the costs of city-paid health insurance for employees.
Council Member Frank Gosiak also voted “no.”
Gosiak said he felt the Council “could have cut a few more things … I felt in my conscience we could have dropped it.”
“It we could have cut it $67,000, we could have brought it to 0,” he said. “If you take that 67,000 divide it by every taxpayer in community it’s not much … but it’s still an increase. Every once in a while you need to hold it as close to 0 as you can, otherwise people always see everything going up, up, up and their wages going down, down, down.”
Gosiak said he felt the city could probably do without a new dump truck for another year and could also lower the increase if the Council had voted to continue the decrease in each member’s pay as it has done for the last couple of years.
Since the Council did not vote to fix its salaries at the previous year’s level, as it has done since 2010 when it voted to reduce them, the rate of pay for each council person will go up $50 starting in January 2013.
The mayor and council president will receive $900 per month and other council members will receive $800 per month.
“We all want a 0 percent increase,” said Mayor Cathy VanRisseghem. “The sad thing of it is, there is a point that there are things that have to be done for the city that we have to do; we just can’t keep putting it off.”
Noting that Little Falls is one of the oldest cities in the state, the mayor said the city’s infrastructure was “old and failing.”
“We have issues at the water and waste water plants; issues with vehicles needed to operate the city to the best of its abilities,” she said.
“We have debt, huge debt for good projects, but now we have to pay for that,” she said. “A 2.8 percent increase, to me, was a good choice.”
The mayor said each year a street project is put off, it becomes more expensive. She said, “So many streets in town are crashing and caving, but we can’t afford to do them.”
She described the tennis and basketball courts in town as “completely shot.”
“We’re not providing those for community members and that’s why they’re paying taxes; they think we’re supposed to be keeping up with this stuff,” she said.
She said the roof on the Pine Grove Park shelter needs to be fixed; the WPA wall is falling done and playground equipment repairs are not getting done unless a club in town provides financing, she said.
“I hate it when we get to the point in the city when we’re so reactive; we’re never being proactive,” she said. “There’s so much that has to be done, that when the debt comes down, we’re just going to build it right up again playing catch-up.”
She said the Council, as city planners, needed to look at the “what-ifs.”
“It’s a huge picture and a potential for a lot of what-ifs,” she said.
Vogt said residents should see a difference in their actual property taxes as compared to preliminary statements received in November.
Little Falls City Council Briefs
In other business Monday, the Council:
• Learned the Parks and Recreation Board recommended refunding the fees paid by Robin Hensel to rent Le Bourget Park and Maple Island Park during a June event;
• Received a petition to vacate an alley on Block 1 of Searle’s Addition near Bethel Lutheran Church and the Morrison County Food Shelf. The Planning Commission will consider the petition at its next meeting, Monday, Dec. 10, at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall;
• Voted to pay for the $1,275 worth of bituminous work at Linden Hill, required when an underground leak was repaired;
• Accepted the donation of an automated external defibrillator (AED) from Take Heart St. Cloud for use at the Carnegie Library in Little Falls;
• Approved the city’s fee schedule for 2013;
• Increased water rates by 3 to 4 cents per thousand gallons and set a rate of $2.59 per thousand for all usage above 50,000 gallons, as opposed to “above 100,000 gallons;”
• Increased wastewater rates from $4.81 to $5.05 per 1,000 gallons and the per-month connection charge from $4.69 to $4.90. The rate for sewer users not served by city water also increased from $24.05 to $25.25 per month;
• Approved a rate increase in the garbage drive-by fee from $6.84 to $7.19 and recycling drive-by fee from $3.13 to $3.23, due to increases in tipping fees at the landfill;
• Approved the 2013 contract agreement for building inspection services with the current provider, David Barsody of Inspection Services of Central Minnesota Inc.; and
• Passed a resolution authorizing David Drown of David Drown Associates to refinance two bonds issued in 2006 with United Bankers Bank at an interest rate of 1.5657 percent, which Drown said was one of the lowest interest rates he’d seen in his 25-year career. Drown said the refinancing of the debt will save the city $316,000 over the next 14 years, the life of the loans. The Council had given Drown the go-ahead to research the refinancing at a work session in October.
The next regularly scheduled council meeting will be held Monday, Dec. 17, at City Hall, at 7:30 p.m. A work session begins at 6:30 p.m. in the conference room.