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Council should reject proposed city budget, levy

From Prior Lake American

Posted: Thursday, September 3, 2015 10:45 am | Updated: 10:15 am, Fri Sep 4, 2015.
I’ve never minded paying taxes, nor am I against government and the services it provides, but like most people I expect
accountability and value. Neither exists in the proposed 2016 Prior Lake city budget, which the council will take up on
Sept. 14.

Budgeting begins with a set of assumptions built on prioritized needs and associated costs, which are then balanced
against available revenues with the city council making the final determination on the need for additional revenue. That’s
how it should be done.
I noted in my July 18 column that City Manager Frank Boyles, in a June 24 memo to staff at the start of the budget
process, set the tone by announcing that the bottom line was going to be an 11-percent property levy increase.
Nowhere in the memo was there a statement of the council’s role in the approval process, direction to staff to control
spending, develop priorities and manage resources. It was the same thinking that gives us the “kick the can down the
road” slogan that our mayor and certain council members are so fond of using in making the case for a higher levy. Is
there accountability?
The proposed tax levy increase comes atop a 10-percent increase last year. It’s argued that the increase is needed to
catch up on deferred projects and inflation, but with inflation running at 1.2 percent for the past two years, where is
the need, or justification, for another increase?
Some argue that the increase would have minimal impact on property owners and that this could be seen as a one-time
bump in the levy. For anyone who understands government and simple math, there is nothing further from the truth. This
levy comes on top of past increases and future increases will come on top of this one. Add in county and school levies,
along with an increase in water rates and other fees and, bottom line, we all end up paying more — and for what?
A large part of the proposed levy increase comes from the Capital Improvement Plan, which is built on nine different
project budgets, the largest of these being transportation. Over the next four years the city wants to spend $61.3
million on transportation projects with $36.6 million coming from city funds and the remainder from county state and
federal sources. The city’s share would come from taxes, special assessments, city reserves and more borrowing.
Included in the budget are the closing of Main Avenue at County Road 21 and the extension of Arcadia Avenue to
Pleasant Street. Both have attracted strong opposition from businesses and neighborhood residents. The Arcadia
extension would cost homes and destroy the city’s only historic neighborhood. Why do Boyles, Hedberg and certain
council members persist with this project?
There’s more.
The facilities management program for 2016-2020 calls for spending $822,000 on the city maintenance center and
$912,000 for fire station No. 1. Keep in mind these are not old buildings and none of these dollars include operating
expenses. Where is the need?
The equipment budget has $1.3 million for the fire department — $103,000 to refurbish a tanker truck. New road
equipment for public works totals $2.3 million including $200,000 for yet another water tanker truck for the public
works department. Why not rent a tanker truck from a contractor or borrow one as needed from the county or another
local government?
Whatever the council approves in the budget will be reflected in the tax levy including additional staff and resources
with questionable justification, like the two tanker trucks. There’s even $200,000 proposed for consultants to update
the Met Council’s 2018 comprehensive plan. How does that benefit the residents of Prior Lake?
Last year Boyles said the library could close if the tax increase wasn’t approved — even though the county operates the
library. This year in a memo to the council he said the Met Council could fine the city $13.5 million if it does not go ahead
with the project to extend Stemmer Ridge Road, which is included in the transportation budget and part of the city and
the Met Council’s long-range growth plans. A few weeks ago I was in a group with former Mayor Wes Mader and Council
Member Annette Thompson that met with Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck. That issue came up and Duininck stated
that although the city of Lake Elmo was subject to fines, the council hadn’t imposed such fines, even over its
longstanding development dispute with Lake Elmo.
Accountability means building a budget around immediate needs, not vague and ambitious long-range plans for growth
and development. Value means providing city services at the lowest possible cost. The council should reject this budget
along with the proposed tax levy.