A mix of economic development and capital projects looks likely.

Some Crookston City Council members, as the process of crafting the City of Crookston's 2014 budget has ramped up from initial casual discussions into high gear, have been asking for some time for more say in what actually ends up in the budget, and what doesn't.

With that in mind, department heads were recently asked to categorize just under $3 million in potential capital improvement projects into groups that indicate varying levels of priority. The groups are entitled "required", "critical", "necessary" and "preferred." At a council Ways & Means Committee meeting this week, Interim City Administrator Pat Kelly, who heads the Public Works Department, acknowledged that as he tried to break his capital needs into the categories, he couldn't help but lend similar weight to at least the required, critical and necessary categories.

Tony Chladek, fired last week by the council, had asked the department heads to break their capital needs into the four groups. Going off that list, Finance Director Angel Hoeffner this week presented council members and department heads with a 2014 preliminary budget that pretty much breaks even, but does not include many of the almost-$3 million in capital projects included on the four-category list.

With the city receiving an additional $459,386 in Local Government Aid (LGA) from the state in 2014, on top of the $3,056,748 the city is already receiving, the lengthy list of capital projects not included in the budget spurred a debate among council members that indicates the differing priorities some of the council members bring to the table.

Hoeffner has already plugged approximately $159,000 of the additional LGA into the general fund budget, leaving right around $300,000 still in play, so to speak. While many council members for months have talked about the need to increase the city's investment in economic development and housing, specifically, initiatives led by the Crookston Housing & Economic Development Authority (CHEDA), when some of them got a look at all of the capital projects currently left out of the 2014 budget, it became apparent that council members don't want to neglect a lot of needed capital projects indefinitely.

In the end, the council decided to start the discussion under the premise that $200,000 of the $300,000 in LGA will go toward increased economic development and housing investments, and the discussion on what to do with the remaining $100,000 will go back to the department head level to be hashed out and brought back to the council.

The debate
Ward 4 Council Member Hector Santellanes, citing only 1 percent of the city's budget going toward economic development, said he favored the entire $300,000 being invested in economic development and housing initiatives. He said other funding sources in the budget could be tapped to pay for some of the most necessary capital projects.

That spurred some council members to stress the importance of not getting too far behind on capital projects and maintenance needs. "Looking at some of the things on this list, if we put too much of it off, it's just going to snowball," Ward 2 Council Member Dana Johnson said. "Economic development is important, but we have to have a city that works, that functions. Just about everything on this list I think we need to take care of. If the city's falling apart, more economic development isn't really going to make any difference."

Ward 1 Council Member Tom Jorgens, who's been the most vocal proponent of investing increased dollars in economic development and housing, said the council has to move beyond the notion that the best way to spend money is to continually cover expenses but do little more. "Everything we're talking about here is expenditures, things that don't create jobs, add housing or increase the tax base," Jorgens said. "They just maintain. We've been doing it that way for years, and if we keep doing it that way, we can't have a healthy, vibrant community. It's that simple."

The city is in line to receive an even greater LGA increase in 2015, although no one around the city hall conference room table is counting on what's on paper now actually becoming reality in two years. "There's another legislative session between now and then," Jorgens said.

But, still, some around the table see the increased LGA as an opportunity for the city to purchase some equipment, replace a roof or garage floor, etc. "Economic development is very important, but at the same time maybe this is an opportunity for us to catch up," At Large Council Member Wayne Melbye said.

"Let's see what next year brings; maybe we'll be able to put out of a lot of fires," Kelly added, in reference to some of the most pressing capital needs. "We can look at creative ways with the department heads to fund some of these projects."