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Prior Lake residents seek answers at budget meeting

By Lori Carlson editor@plamerican.com

While many cities fail to attract even a few residents to their year-end truth-in-taxation hearings, Prior Lake packed about 40 people into a room at City Hall on Monday for an informal meeting on a budget that won’t be finalized until December.

With two months to go before the Prior Lake City Council votes on a final budget and property tax levy for 2016, residents showed up with notepads full of questions about what could be a big hike in the city property tax for 2016. Prior Lake staff has proposed a maximum 11.5-percent levy increase, following the 10-percent city tax levy increase residents sustained in 2015.

The city expects to spend about $13.1 million from its general fund in 2016, up from $12.9 million in 2015. Total spending in all funds for the city would top $29.7 million under the 2016 proposal.

The owner of an average-valued home, at $302,000 for 2016, would pay about $111 more on the city tax bill next year under the proposal. An owner of a $672,000 home would pay about $239 more.

Concerned about rising taxes, residents questioned city spending, focusing largely on Prior Lake’s costs for the Highway 13/150th Street project now underway. The nearly $9 million intersection project originally was tagged at about $6.9 million. Added costs come from a MnDOT suggestion to add a left turn lane on northbound Highway 13 at Rustic Road, property acquisitions and fixing poor soils found at the site. After the state kicks in a couple million, Prior Lake and Savage will split the remainder, but Prior Lake committed to paying about $800,000 more for the signal to be placed at 150th Street rather than Savage’s preference, Zinran Avenue.

The highway project has become a sore subject for Lyn and Mike Rothmeyer, who live on 150th Street. The couple moved from Bloomington to Prior Lake about 10 years ago, and Lyn said their taxes have shot up 80 percent in that time.

“I think you guys should hold the line on your budget, like us business owners have to do, like us families have to do,” Mike said.

The two said their lake home is not worth as much as when they bought it, and now they’re facing the loss of trees on their property due not only to the 150th project, but also potentially to emerald ash borer, which was recently discovered in Prior Lake.

“I’m still in shock,” Lyn said.

A handful of members from the city’s advisory committees were on hand for the unprecedented meeting. Prior Lake has had some lively public tax hearings in the past, but this is the first time the city scheduled a town hall-style meeting to accommodate concerned residents.

Though most who spoke were critical of city spending, Planning Commissioner Bryan Fleming touched off a discussion about under-funding in the city’s police and fire departments.

“Does the proposed budget reflect everything [the chiefs] wanted? Is it a full or partial wish list?” Fleming asked.

“The proposed budget does not include any wish list items,” said Finance Director Don Uram.

The council, Uram said, has been “generally supportive” of hiring another police officer, but the city still trails others of similar size.

Police Chief Mark Elliott said the city is operating about eight officers short of what it should be for a similar sized city, to which resident Curt Hennes responded that “it’s not about the number or what other cities have for staff. It’s about how much or how little crime we have here.”

Elliott added that although Prior Lake is fortunate to have few of the “big crimes” – murder and serious assault among them – if the city doesn’t stay in line with others in the metro and fails to pay attention to crime trends, it will miss the mark.

It’s the same argument Mayor Ken Hedberg has made throughout his time on the council: the city shouldn’t “kick the can down the road” and wait until needs are urgent to start investing in them. Since 2008, the city’s population has increased from 22,400 to nearly 26,000 and the city has added eight parks and nearly 10 miles of streets. Police and fire calls have each gone up about 11 percent over the last seven years.

But the most vocal of Prior Lake’s citizens plan to continue holding their elected leaders to the task of keeping taxes down, citing the fixed incomes of the city’s retiree population.

“In three of the last seven years there has been no cost of living increase in Social Security, but there have been continual increases in our taxes,” Hennes said.