Last night the City Council held its usual meeting with the addition of the Truth in Taxation hearing at the beginning.
The meeting was called to order at 6:30 with all Councilors present except for Councilor Benson.
The Council opened up the Public Comment Period with the clarification that this Public Comment Period was
the Truth in Taxation hearing with the direct purpose of giving residents the opportunity to speak directly to the Council specifically in regards to their views of the 5.49% increase in the tax levy proposed for 2017.
Three residents spoke during the comment period.
The first resident, Bob Mattson, who has been a community resident since 1969 and a city employee for a good chunk of that time acknowledged that the City's levy was not overboard, but that when all of the increases get lumped together it becomes brutal to residents in the area. He mentioned that the cost of living is staying consistently ahead of inflation. He acknowledged that many of the services that the City provides are getting pricey to provide, but he encouraged the City to prioritize necessities and luxuries and to tighten the belt on all of those items that are not mandated.
The second resident, Joyce Heiskari, mentioned that her City and County tax portion on her tax document were almost identical, which she saw as surprising. She again acknowledged that the City has been pretty conservative over the years, but asked the Council some of the details of the City healthcare plan, i.e. what's the share that the City pays? What's the share that the employee pays? What is the deductible for individuals and for families? What are the premiums?
Financial Director Dunsmoor was able to answer most of these questions and said that she would find the answers that she did not have readily available.
The answers were as such: The City contributes about $200/individual and $500/family for healthcare costs and offers a plan with a $1200 deductible for individuals and $2400 deductible for families. The premium information is something that I am waiting on and will share that when I get it.
She also asked us how much, out of the revenues of the Rec. Park and the Liquor Store, goes into the General Fund each year. The answers to that are that the Council has not concluded the amount for the Rec. Park for this year, but the Liquor Store contributes a set $200,000 each year to the General Fund.
She also noticed the saturation of tourism in the town and asked if the City has been forced to hire more people for seasonal work due to this saturation. The quick answer to that is that seasonal staffing has stayed pretty steady, so not particularly. Her suggestion was to see if there was some way to get some of the 1% lodging tax to offset those expenses if the City experienced them... I'm not sure that would be possible, but I am looking into the details of the 1% lodging tax language...
Her final question was about Library staffing, pointing out that the full-time expense for Library staff went up dramatically for 2017. I explained that this was due to decreases in full time staff expenses in 2016 due to some employees requesting to be taken off of full-time work and due to a struggle to keep enough part-time work on hand to perform the work of the Library. The jump in full-time employee costs was due to the hiring of an assistant director for the Library, which was identified by the Library Board as a priority to allow the Library to begin to actualize its goals of providing top-notch services within the Library walls in addition to beginning to offer library services to the edges of the County. *We told Joyce that we would get in touch with her and provide those details that we were unable to give initially.
The final resident, Evelyn Larson, echoed the sentiment that when you add up all of the taxes from the different tax districts it gets burdensome and encouraged the Council to look at any possible spots where we can cut expenses.
She also asked why the Council voted to purchase the Tomteboda property for the Public Works facility instead of sticking with the plan to develop the facility in the Business Park. Councilor Kennedy explained that the concern with the Business Park idea was that in order to get as large a spot as we needed in that area we would have to purchase 3-4 lots and face a grade and fill expense of nearly a million dollars in addition to wetland mitigation expenses, so the flat property located at the Tomteboda property would save us most of these expenses, thus taking that expense off of the project and saving the City money. In addition, Kennedy pointed out that the City will only be utilizing 3.5 acres of the Tomteboda property, so there will likely be one or two lots with Hwy 61 frontage that will come back up for sale on the private market. *That decision hasn't been made, so I mention that as a possibility.
Her final question was about affordable housing, asking why it wasn't considered to locate the current EDA housing project in the Business Park. Councilor Moody explained that the EDA started considerations for the project based on the feedback received from the housing study that was completed and considered 100+ properties for the proposed location and decided on the current location due to the location of infrastructure, the availability of land, the expense of development, etc... I offered to sit down with Ms. Larson to continue these conversations and she told me that her kettle is always on, so I will be taking her up on that!
Following that I closed the comment period, which was also closing the Truth in Taxation hearing for the City.
The Council then moved along to the Consent Agenda, which had the usual three items on it (Approve the Agenda, Approve the Previous Meeting's Minutes, and Approve the Bills). There were no concerns for the Consent Agenda so it was passed unanimously.
The next item on the agenda was the annual report from North House Folk School and Greg Wright (NHFS Director) was present to walk us through North House's year.
He reported that all numbers for class registration have been up consistently showing roughly a 10% increase over the previous year, which was a 12% increase over the previous year. North House has been providing programs for homeschool children in our area, elementary students throughout the community, has a youth deckhand program, and other school programming. September 2016 was the highest month for registration in the near 20 year life of the school. On that note, Greg pointed out that North House is going to have some significant 20th birthday celebrations including a few, which he wanted to share with the Council.
For the 10th birthday of North House the school offered and built a number of timbered benches that were scattered about town and that are still there
serving the community. He was interested in starting the conversation with the Council to identify a project or two that North House could work with the City on to celebrate the 20 year relationship between the two. The Council thought this was a great idea and said that we would identify someone to work with Greg on brainstorming some projects that would assist the City in accomplishing some of its goals while celebrating the 20 year relationship with North House.
The other conversation that Mr. Wright brought up was to sit down and have a further conversation regarding the current lease with North House. North House is partially located on City land and has paid a set lease amount based on a 25 year lease, of which about 15 years remains. When this 25 year lease was created, North House was given a number of goals to aim for and accomplish. Considering that North House has achieved or exceeded most of these items, and that North House is looking to invest again into their campus, there is interest in revisiting the lease and seeing if there is possibility for re-working that arrangement to guarantee North House's presence in Grand Marais and to give the City reassurance that this arrangement is beneficial for it as well. I volunteered to be on that conversation with Administrator Roth, Mr. Wright, and a Board member from North House.
Following that conversation it was time for the Planning Commission Report:
The first item on the Planning Commission Report was a request for a variance to allow the Curtis's to redesign and reconstruct the front of their home. The reconstruction will not extend beyond the existing footprint, but it will modify the roofline of the building, and will improve the liveability of the property, which are all reasons for approval of the variance. The Commission voted 5-0 to approve the variance and the Council agreed, so the vote was taken and the variance was approved unanimously.
The second item on the Report was some proposed improvements for the zoning ordinance in regards to non-conforming uses Citywide. This was a pretty significant change as the Commission pretty much scratched all of the existing language and took the ordinance away from governing case studies of non-conformities to addressing the basics of what non-conformities are
and how we want to have them function and how to we want them to be preserved or forfeited. I have the language for this new ordinance and will attempt to attach it to another blog post here in a few days... I feel that it is pretty important that residents can see this proposed ordinance change if their property has a non-conformity. *This was the first reading, so the Council will be taking this up again at our next meeting, so please get comments in as soon as you can!
The final item on the agenda was a Resolution that identified that the City will be borrowing some money in order to finance the Public Works facility. We have to identify that we are going to be borrowing money and that we intend to use that money for a project, or else we can't use it for that project! This is one more of the protections put in place to make sure that public money is used for projects that are appropriate. This was merely a formality and passed unanimously. The only question that was asked was the amount identified that the City may borrow, which was $4 million. This seemed a little high, but Administrator Roth said that this was merely a cautious number to make sure that the City wouldn't be stuck with money that we borrowed, but couldn't use on the project.
There was one more item added to the agenda at this point. It was a conversation regarding the Community Visioning process and part of the reason that the City took this on, which is the moratorium on commercial construction in the C/I Zone. This moratorium will expire in February of 2017 and because the City is in the middle of the community engagement process and has not gotten to a point of resolving the problems with that zoning ordinance. The team that we have been working with on this situation provided us with three options that we can do to address this.
a.) Continue as we are, get through the community engagement process, continue gathering information and drafting ordinance language as we get to it and perhaps finish the project in June 2017. The pros for this option are that it will not interfere with the larger Comprehensive Plan goal that the City has and it will allow for more conversation about the C/I Zone. The cons for this option are that the moratorium will expire in February without any change in the ordinance, which wasn't the purpose that we put the moratorium in place for, and thus, without any changes to the ordinance there will be no changes to what types of development is allowed in that zone.
b.) We can draft new language for the C/I Zone now and adopt it before the moratorium expires. The pros of this is that we can pass changes that roughly reflect the City's desires for the C/I Zone and we can get some ideas in place that allow for development in the C/I Zone that is felt is consistent with the City's characteristics. These could always be changed at a later date, but the goal here would be to get things almost completely done. The cons for this one is that there would be literally no
community comment on these ordinance changes, which I don't think is a very good idea at all... Another con is that Councilor Kennedy stated that reworking the C/I Zone would take a LOT of work and likely would not be done in a quality way by the time it would need to be adopted.
c.) The final option was to draft some
language to update the ordinance, or adopt the interim ordinance as permanent with the expectation that this is a stop-gap measure to offer basic protections until the community has an opportunity to weigh in on how the C/I Zone should function. Pros of this approach would be that the community would still get to weigh in and ultimately have the decision of what happens in the C/I Zone and there would be basic protections against "unwanted" developments in the meantime. The cons for this is that we will be stuck with inadequate ordinance language for a time. Councilor Kennedy also mentioned that he thought it would be hard to even get this done unless we adopted the interim ordinance as a permanent ordinance, which I don't believe everyone wants.
*It seems that a.) and c.) are the only real options here. We will continue this conversation and will make a decision on this early in 2017.
Also, the Council appointed Councilor Mills to be considered for the County's new Parks and Trails Commission. He was concerned about the time investment, but was very interested in being a part of it. His qualification would be that he is the City Park Department representative and having that uniformity would be really valuable.
On to updates:
Councilor Mills reported that there was a Park Board meeting where they talked about the Greater Minnesota Parks and Trails application for funding. They are working on the Park Master Plan to make sure that it is appropriate for the application for funding to accomplish some of the major goals of this plan.
Mills acknowledged that Park Director Tersteeg does incredible work there and has been incredibly important to the visioning process for the park. Big kudos to him.
Mills also went to a Northwoods Food Project meeting where they were looking at how agricultural land is assessed in the County. There is state language that oversees this, but that language doesn't address most of the unique characteristics of our land up here and that should be looked at to see if there are other ways to categorize agricultural land to better meet what that looks like up here.
Councilor Moody reported on the EDA meeting where they discussed their budget concerns and was wondering how joint agreements between the City and the County would be affected in the instance that the County cuts its funding to joint entities... There isn't really any answer to that question, but my response was that it is in the interest of the City to budget for expected expenses. If the County cuts funding for something, the agreements that we have would have to be looked at to see if we are expected to commit less as well.
Councilor Kennedy reported that he will be going to a walkable community presentation on Friday to see how we can improve walkability in Grand Marais as a part of the Hwy 61 process and on a policy level for the City. There is also a bikeable community workshop that the City can apply to have brought to town. There was interest in this, so I believe that the City will apply for this.
Administrator Roth had a update on the Community Visioning process, which has identified a great number of events at which the City can do some information gathering. I went to the snowmobile club rally (great raffle prizes by the way!), we went to Ruby's Pantry, I am looking for an opportunity to go to the Senior Center for lunch to gather information... and many others! If you have any ideas for ways the City can engage with residents, PLEASE LET ME KNOW!
My update had a number of items:
-The Nordic Nature Group, a group of young homeschooled students, approached the City to take part in a survey to get a "grade" based on our sustainability and environmental awareness as a city. I have done this survey and we will be getting our grade early in 2017, which will have suggestions for ways the City can improve these elements of the City.
-I attended a CrimeNet Meeting, which is the state policy board that oversees how the state works on improving information systems for law enforcement. They are having many conversations about what the end game is for that group and who is going to pay for it. They have made incredible steps forward in getting the correct information to the correct people as fast as possible so that law enforcement becomes more accurate, more efficient, and safer.
-I have had a number of conversations about stormwater stuff concerning the City and have gotten a lot of ideas pertaining to how we could improve the overall stormwater situation. Thank you for that input!
-There is a grant available for the City for sustainable development. This could be used to assist with the renewable energy aspects being considered for City buildings.
-CCLEP has also said that they are interested in helping gather information with regard to these sustainability efforts.
-I may be doing a proclamation to celebrate School Choice Week in January. It is supposed to be a day that celebrates the choices we have for education in our community.
That was it for that meeting! As always, please let me know if you have any questions or comments.