Brainerd council members adopted the preliminary 2014 tax levy of $4,453,486 with $116,189 for the Housing and Redevelopment Authority.
The vote was 6-1 with Council member Mary Koep opposed.
Council members discussed options for possible reductions to the preliminary levy and balanced that against capital improvement project costs.
With the $1.5 million in proposed capital improvement bonds halted by a petition, a report by Jeff Hulsether, city engineer, noted those costs were not in the 2014 budget. The petition was headed by former council member Bob Olson and Jan Burton, a former candidate for a council seat, who attended Monday night’s meeting.
After a Dec. 9 budget meeting, possible cuts in the preliminary levy were identified. Council members weighed making additional cuts against capital improvement projects after a citizen petition halted city plans for $1.5 million in proposed capital improvement bonds.
In a memo to Council member Gary Scheeler presented in the council packet, Jeff Hulsether, city engineer, reported consequences of the citizen petition to stop the bonding came in potential for critical failures in city systems that could “cause considerable disruption of services” or use of city hall work spaces not budgeted for 2014.
Hulsether ranked the projects by priority along with estimated costs. The projects included $2,000 for a heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) valve actuator; $30,000 for a telephone system; $15,000 for an HVAC control system; $4,000 for HVAC system heat pumps with two or three anticipated to be needed during the next two years. In addition, Hulsether noted an estimated $70,000 for a generator and associated electrical work for emergency preparedness at the police department and $80,000 for the city hall steps and facade cleaning. All those items total about $210,000.
After the Dec. 9 budget meeting, staff identified another $100,000 in possible reductions to the preliminary levy. Additional cuts included: reducing the fund balance levy by $50,000 as Koep previously suggested; savings of $37,000 with the equipment certificate bond issue; gaining $7,600 from the Housing and Redevelopment Authority reimbursement for human resource services; reducing the special projects fund by $5,400, which would leave $32,600 in the project fund.
Council member Dale Parks said he was in favor of reducing the levy but when the petition took out money the city needed for replacement it created a need for a stop-gap measure. Council members noted instead of lowering the levy, money in the budget will be needed for repairs. Council member Kelly Bevans said it was incredibly disappointing not to take advantage of low interest rates on the bond. Council members said some repairs have been put off since 2007.
Koep said she wouldn’t support the motion, saying she thought it was vindictive and retaliatory against the people who put together the petition. Koep questioned the $5,000 contribution to the Initiative Foundation as well, saying that money wasn’t required to be eligible for grants.
“I think this is a mistake,” she said of the levy, adding landlords can only eat so much and it will hit them higher than residential property owners. Koep said that means they pass on their costs and it will mean more people will need government help. “It’s a vicious circle and one that I think we contribute to in this action,” Koep said. The petition was valid and the people are the boss, Koep said. Council member Bonnie Cumblerland said after the budget meeting she was ready to make $100,000 in cuts but after the petition and going to an emergency preparedness meeting, she no longer saw an alternative. Cumberland said the phone calls she’s been getting have been from residents who say the city can’t continue to go backwards.
Cumberland said the move was not being done as a slap in the face to the people who started the petition but the city needs to take care of some important issues.
Council member Gary Scheeler said he felt 90 percent of the city’s residents would agree. Scheeler said he was sick to his stomach but this is something the council needed to do.
During open forum Olson addressed the council and asked questions of department heads. Olson questioned the wording of the critical systems and asked when council members first heard of these needs. Cumberland said she’s heard about them for weeks or months through the budget process.
Olson said the valve and phone system could have been purchased already for 2014 and he asked if Hulsether was ready to recommend a motion to purchase the those critical items as of Monday night. Olson resisted Cumberland’s efforts to tell him there were time limits on speaking and that the budget items he was addressing were already voted on earlier. Olson said the specific spending wasn’t acted on by the council.
As serious as Hulsether’s memo sounds, Olson said he would order the engineer and administrator to get on it.
I’m sure you are very serious about it,” Olson said, to which Hulsether replied it kept him up at night.
Olson said he wasn’t arguing against upkeep of buildings or equipment but the capital bond was rushed and came with general estimates instead of quotes.
Olson then asked to be on the Jan. 10 agenda for no less than 10 minutes with a general topic. He said he was disappointed in the way the critical issues were being handled in regard to the phone system and air conditioning valves, something he said council members should have been aware of. Burton suggested the city consider establishing a citizens advisory committee to work on the budget such as one that exists in East Gull Lake.