TOWER—On Tuesday, the city council approved a preliminary levy increase of ten percent for next year, while signaling their intent to trim that number before the final levy is set in December. …
TOWER—On Tuesday, the city council approved a preliminary levy increase of ten percent for next year, while signaling their intent to trim that number before the final levy is set in December. Mayor Josh Carlson said any final increase should only be approved to pay for a needed city project, like road repairs or purchase of tax forfeit properties on Main Street for economic development. “If you put a project in front of me, I have no problem with it,” Carlson said. “But I will not raise the levy just to raise the levy.”
City Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith said she was currently fine-tuning a budget proposal, which should be available to the council by their second meeting in September. “I’m working on a zero-percent increase in the operating budget,” Keith said. “I’ll stand by that.”
But other councilors raised concerns that city needs, such as street repairs, were not being met. Councilor Bill Hiltunen motioned for a 20-percent preliminary increase, but it died for lack of a second. Lance Dougherty said he shared some of Hiltunen’s concerns. “In my opinion, we’ve kept it tight,” he said. “I think we need to prepare ourselves for a levy increase. We’ve kind of neglected Pine Street and South Second,” he said. Carlson agreed that the south side streets needed attention and he encouraged councilors to bring a street project to the table.
In the end, the council settled on a preliminary 10-percent hike, voting unanimously, with Councilor Matich absent, in favor.
In related discussion, the council also voted 3-1, with Carlson voting no, to raise the city’s water and sewer rates by $1.50 a quarter. The issue prompted considerable debate, and some calls for a bigger increase. Dougherty, who sits on the Tower-Breitung Wastewater Board said it’s pretty clear that the wastewater board is going to need to raise the rates it charges the city soon, which the city will have to pass on to customers. Keith argued for the more modest $1.50 increase noting that city staff already have to face complaints over the rates. She also urged the council to consider a higher late fee as an incentive to reduce the number of delinquent accounts, but the council took no action on that request.
The council also tabled action on a bevy of other city fees and charges. They take those assessments up during their budget talks in the coming weeks.
The council did take final action on a resolution to transfer about 2.4 acres of land around the Tower Harbor to Tower Vision 2025, the development group that’s planning a mixed residential and commercial project there. While the proposal has been approved before, the council didn’t have the final contract language in place until this week. The contract was set for signing this week, which will officially clear the way for Tower Vision to begin pre-sales of town houses and take on investors. Project coordinator Orlyn Kringstad said he has investors and some pre-sales already lined up and ready to go. He’s also identified an experienced restaurant operator interested in leasing a restaurant space on the harbor.
The council did not approve, however, of a proposal by the Tower-Soudan Historical Society to request free conveyance from St. Louis County of two tax-forfeit lots on Main Street, located between the post office and the old fire hall, for a pocket park. Carlson said the intent of the recent demolition of two buildings that formerly occupied the site was for economic development. “I have no interest in tying up prime commercial property for a pocket park,” he said.
While the city can seek a transfer of ownership of the land for economic development, it would have to pay appraised value for the two parcels. Otherwise, the county would proceed to sell the lots through public auction. Councilors indicated they would prefer to acquire the lots to give the city more control over the future use of the site and asked Keith to get a firmer estimate on the likely purchase price.
In other business, the council:
• Voted unanimously to offer the Ambulance Director position to Steve Altenburg, but at the pay and duties described in the current job description. Councilors agreed that Altenburg has done a good job on the service, but said they were reluctant to agree to his request for a $500 a month pay increase to start. If Altenburg declines the position, councilors said the city can post the position externally.
• Heard from Breitung Police Chief Jesse Anderson, who expressed his disappointment that the St. Louis County School District did not consult with the Breitung PD regarding the stationing of sheriff’s deputies in district schools, including Tower-Soudan. Anderson noted that he and officer Dan Nylund were both very active in the two local schools. “We kind of got blindsided on it,” he said. “I’m guessing the chief in Babbitt probably feels the same way.”
• Heard from fire chief Steve Altenburg that an errant cigarette caused a small fire in the downstairs of city hall, filling part of the building’s basement with smoke. He urged the council to look at some modifications around that portion of the building to prevent a similar incident in the future.
• Heard from Carlson on his efforts to set up a joint meeting between city officials and representatives of the Bois Forte reservation to discuss school enrollment. “We need to talk about why we’re having such a tough time retaining elementary students,” he said. “The decision by parents to send their kids out of the community will have an impact on what we’re trying to do on Main Street and on the local economy,” he said. Carlson cited the low student-teacher ratios and excellent staff at the Tower-Soudan Elementary and questioned why many parents were still opting to send their kids to other schools.
• Heard an update from Carlson on the joint emergency services building. He said the committee is close to final agreement on the location, which will likely be within the Tower industrial park, just off Hwy. 135. He said the site is essentially ready to go and has approval from MnDOT. At this point, he said, the committee was working through building designs and has continued to downsize the building to reduce the estimated price tag. “We will be moving forward with a pared down 15,000 square foot building. That’s what we will send back to the architect,” Carlson said.
• Reversed an earlier decision to allow Jeff Hill to use a city-owned GEM car to offer tours from the historic depot. In a statement she read to the council, Keith indicated that the city’s insurance carrier had raised concerns about Hill’s use of the vehicle after a background check uncovered criminal charges in both Minnesota and Colorado, the most recent being a felony involving a controlled substance. Keith said when she informed Hill about the results of the check, he became “extremely combative, hostile and threatening.” She also said the Hill has posted an “overwhelming amount” of comments on social media that disparage the city of Tower and questioned whether he would make a good representative of the city to the public.
• Approved spending $11,500 for utility mapping at the Hoodoo Point Campground in preparation for a planned expansion at the facility.
• Approved a new job description for a deputy clerk, working 32 hours per week. The council also approved posting for the opening.
• Offered thanks to Dan Broten and Mike Indihar for putting on a youth ATV safety course in the city.
• Approved a requirement that RV park proposer Dave Rose post $7,500 in an escrow account to cover the city’s costs of reviewing and upgrading an environmental assessment worksheet that Rose is in the process of completing. City engineer Jason Chopp, with SEH, said he would keep close tabs on the billable hours for the review and notify the city if additional funds will be needed.
• Accepted a request by Altenburg to terminate Rolando Noyes from the Tower Fire Department for lack of participation. Keith said she would send a letter to Noyes notifying him and thanking him for his past service.