City of Crookston 2022 preliminary levy set at 10%, budgets highlighted

Jess Bengtson
Crookston Times

    The Crookston City Council Ways & Means Committee set the preliminary tax levy for 2022 at 10% after hours of discussion and special meetings going through each department’s numbers and requests. City Administrator Amy Finch provided the 2022 budget worksheet and a document showcasing what the impact would be on households and businesses for each levy increase possibility starting with 4% and running through 12%.

    The full Council is set to approve the preliminary tax levy at their September 27 meeting, but setting the amount at 10% means city staff need to find about $80,000 more to cut before that time.

    If the levy stays at 10% for 2022, the impact it would have on a household with a home valued at $150,000 would be $66.09 monthly or $793.05 annually. For a business valued at $200,000, the impact would be $209.37 month or $2,512.45 annually.

BUDGET DISCUSSION HIGHLIGHTS

Crookston Fire Department budget: Fire Chief Tim Froeber and Administrator Finch told the Council that the department’s truck reserves are behind by $47,000 after the council previously cut their reserves to save money on that year’s (or those years’) levy. Finch said they need to try to “catch up” and suggested they raise the annual reserve amount which was reflected in the 2022 budget.

Professional Fees budget: Last year, Finch noted, money was transferred from this budget to the general fund and then to Crookston Housing & Economic Development Authority (CHEDA) who transferred $15,000 to the Small Business Development Center (SBDC). A couple council members seemed bothered as they thought the city had ended payments to the SBDC. “It’s always the same story,” said Ward 6 council member Tom Vedbraaten, who added that the SBDC seems to be looking for investors and “it doesn’t seem to happen.” Ward 2’s Steve Erickson agreed saying the council “hasn’t heard boo from them in two years.” At-Large council member Wayne Melbye suggested inviting SBDC’s Christine Anderson to come before the council to give an update on the organization.

Legal budget: Finch pointed out that this budget was “the one you’ve all been waiting for” and said she took a hard look, and found it had remained at the same level (set at $110,000) since 2016 not accounting for any increases either on the criminal or civil side. “Going into 2020, the criminal charges were $117,000 alone which exceeded,” Finch explained, also pointing out that criminal trends are changing and the court process is not the same. “Keeping your budget the same every year is really not helpful,” she added. Finch also defined the bigger items that needed legal attention in 2021 including two farm lease errors, which were “an embarrassment to the city”; UMC (University of Minnesota Crookston) arena lease, tax forfeited land, Herkenhoff land purchase (Nature’s Estates), city personnel issues, CHEDA restructure, and Epitome Energy. She proposed to the council that they offer a flat budget rather than bill per hour, adding it was difficult for staff if they had to prioritize what needed legal opinion and what didn’t. Another change would be to send and receive all documents electronically which would save time on the city side and time on billable hours. Melbye asked if there was a way to break down how much they’re paying the city attorney, Corky Reynolds, and wondered if there was a “double dip” happening when they ask for something from Finch and she consults with Reynolds who then attends a Council meeting and explains it again to them. “Is it feasible for him to explain it to you and then you explain it to us?” Melbye wondered. Finch said there are certain things she wouldn’t feel comfortable relaying such as tax forfeited land legalities, but other things she could depending on what it was. “I get a kick out of it because you can go to Coast to Coast or whatever and get bolts, nuts, batteries, paintbrush, broom, but you can’t get the $18,000 one to be divided up and tell you what the heck you’re paying for,” added Melbye. Finch said the way their billing is done, if multiple things are written down in one description, is that it’s one set of hours and they’ve done their best to identify those, plus she can add the council’s requests for billing breakdown in the RFP (request for proposal) once they advertise for next year’s city attorney. Later, Erickson mentioned the 2021 legal fees have been “pretty extreme” and wondered what they compared to. Finch answered that she’s projecting 529 hours for $74,000 and reiterated that when looking at budgets they need to be realistic and setting the legal budget at $110,000 each year has blown that budget.

Other items:

    • Finch said she removed from the 2022 budget a $20,000 request from the Golden Link Senior Center for a freezer and also removed the Downtown Crookston Development Partnership’s budget request of $14,000 for downtown amenities such as new trash receptacles, park benches and stationary activity tables. She said it was her opinion that approving those requests would not be the “most responsible decision” when the city has some “pretty severe needs ourselves.” Later, when discussing the preliminary levy amount, Erickson wondered why they were talking earlier that night about approving money for a community app (after a presentation by Megan Pederson of Vocal Fuel LLC) “when we can’t buy a freezer for old folks.” “If we’re going to have budgets like this we can’t have a $10,000 app,” he said pointedly. “We cut the freezer and a lot of elderly depend on those meals.” When the topic was brought up again towards the end of the meeting, Finch said her thought was to keep things in the budget that benefited the whole community. “Was the timing of the app proposal ideal? No. Did I have a hand in that? No. I do think there’s opportunity to share the cost on that (app.) It wasn’t because I like or dislike one over the other. I’m not sure that I can justify that half a percent for a walk-in freezer that serves a small sector of the community when we send (the Golden Link) 2% levy at the end of the year with cash.”

    • Finch outlined a “significant” loss in their portfolio which shows a negative balance of over $31,000.

    • There was talk of pursuing a purchase of the land where the red barn sits on the Downtown Square and the council asked Finch to explore it.

    • There is a current plan for a redesign of the city’s website with a cost of around $65,000 to complete plus Microsoft 365 migration, cameras for the police department and antivirus upgrade all coming from the IT budget.