TOWER— Despite her dismissal this past summer, former Tower City Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith continues to create problems and expense for the city.The council here, on Monday, approved the …
TOWER— Despite her dismissal this past summer, former Tower City Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith continues to create problems and expense for the city.
The council here, on Monday, approved the purchase of new computer software and the hiring of Aurora-based Roger’s Online to conduct a security audit of city hall’s computer systems after Keith remotely deactivated the system on Oct. 17.
Keith’s action left the city’s computers inoperable for about five hours according to new clerk-treasurer Victoria Ranua.
Keith was able to knock out the city’s computer system, which runs primarily on Microsoft’s Office 365, by changing the password to the city’s account, which Keith had improperly established as a personal account in her own name, using city funds.
In so doing, Keith violated the city of Tower’s charter, which states: “All contracts, bonds, and instruments of any kind to which the CITY is a party… shall be executed in the name of the CITY.”
Ranua stated that Keith’s use of the personal version of Office 365 for government work also violated the licensing agreement with Microsoft and also had exposed the city to legal liability.
Whether Keith violated any laws through her action is unclear, but Ranua did report the incident to the Breitung Police Department. Police chief Dan Nyland told the council on Monday that an investigation is ongoing. Mayor Orlyn Kringstad said information so far has been forwarded to the St. Louis County Attorney.
“What we don’t know is if the former clerk-treasurer is still using the software that was paid for by the city,” said Kringstad.
The city had paid for a year-long subscription to the program back in February, so the city will, at Microsoft’s recommendation, dispute the charge for the remaining months of the contract, which could eliminate any access to the program that Keith still maintains.
In her report to the city council on Monday, Ranua stated that she established a free trial on a business premium version of Office 365, that runs through Nov. 17. The council authorized Ranua to purchase either the basic business software or the business premium version based on her discretion. The annual subscription is likely to run an additional $960 a year, possibly less. The software operates the computer system for the clerk-treasurer and the deputy clerk-treasurer.
The cost of the security audit approved by the council is $2,450 and will investigate any potential remote access that the former clerk-treasurer might still maintain to city computers and help strengthen the city’s computer security going forward. “We need to make sure that there are no more backdoor accesses to systems at city hall,” said Kringstad. “That’s why Roger’s Online is recommending an audit of the systems.”
The incident raised other concerns as well, since city officials have confirmed that Keith had informed her longtime political ally, city ambulance director and fire chief Steve Altenburg, of her decision to disable the city’s computer system the day before, but Altenburg never informed any city officials who might be affected prior to the arrival of the clerk-treasurer and deputy clerk-treasurer on the morning of Oct. 17.
Ranua provided the council with an updated report on the city’s precarious finances, including current fund balances as well as identified liabilities. As of Monday, the city had $864,097 in its general fund, but Ranua noted that that number is significantly inflated by the $750,000 in loan funds that the city has received in recent months as well as a recent $350,000 reimbursement from the LCCMR for a portion of the harbor trail project. Ranua recommended that the LCCMR funds be used to pay off about two-thirds of the $453,651 remaining from a grant anticipation grant that the city took out with Frandsen Bank this past summer.
Ranua said she was still working to better understand the city’s existing liabilities and noted that the city currently has at least ten loans or other bonded debt, totaling $2.67 million. Councilor Sheldon Majerle said the city debt should also include the $140,000 insurance settlement that the city received for the fire that destroyed the former ambulance and fire garage, which the city spent for other purposes without rebuilding the desperately-needed garage.
Ranua also provided the council with an improved budget printout including spending year-to-date, with easy-to-track totals for each sub-category.
In other action, the council took several steps to advance a planned water treatment upgrade and water main project in cooperation with Breitung Township. The council adopted recommended changes in the city’s joint powers agreement with the Tower-Breitung Wastewater Board and greenlighted a proposal by engineers SEH to develop design drawings and conduct soil borings for the proposed replacement of the nearly 80-year-old water main that connects the water tower to the city’s distribution system.
The TWWB has already applied for funding for that work as well as construction of a new water treatment plant to address concerns about emergent bacterial seepage from the East Two River. The water treatment plant is estimated to cost up to $3.4 million, which would be split between Tower and Breitung. The city would have to pay the full estimated $1.1 million cost of the new water main on its own. The combined projects are currently ranked number two in the state with the Public Facilities Authority, which means loan funding is nearly assured. But the city will also be exploring grant opportunities to help write down some of the cost.
In related action, the council authorized a new community household income survey in hopes of better documenting the city’s low-and-moderate income population. Due to poor response during the 2010 census, the city lost its eligibility for funding under the federal Community Development Block Grant program, which is designed to help lower income communities. City grant writer Nancy Larson said she is hoping to get as much as $350,000 from CDBG for the water main if the city can document that it qualifies as a low-and-moderate income community.
In other business, the council:
Discussed establishing a format for city department reports to ensure that relevant information and any action items are included with the reports to better assist the council in its decision-making. The format is likely to be similar to the one-page memos that Ranua is now providing to the council for most items on the agenda. Ranua is now providing the memos as well as the council packet to members of the council along with their meeting agendas, which gives council members time to inform themselves before attending meetings.
Heard and discussed correspondence and public input from Greenwood Township resident Lee Peterson focusing on the spending of past ambulance surpluses for other city expenses. “Until the Timberjay started reporting it, the townships were unaware that money was being transferred for city spending,” said Peterson, who encouraged the council to backfill the ambulance reserve. Peterson also encouraged the council to produce a complete and comprehensive accounting of the ambulance funds and where they went.
Approved on a 4-1 vote, spending $17,690 for a five-year extended warranty for three Zoll EKG units for the city’s three ambulances. Based on information provided by ambulance director Steve Altenburg, Ranua told the council that the extended warranty was required to maintain the licensure of the city’s ambulances, but that turned out to be incorrect. State law only requires that ambulances have working EKG units. The contract will be paid out annually at a cost of $3,538 per year.
Approved a contract with Nancy Larson’s Community Coaching for preparation of grant and loan requests for the city’s water treatment and main line project, at a cost of up to $1,500. Larson noted that 50 percent of that cost could be written down through the IRRRB’s grant-writing grant program.
Approved retaining Duluth-based Johnson, Killen and Seiler law firm to provide representation to the city should the Teamsters Union pursue the grievance filed on behalf of former clerk-treasurer Linda Keith. The city will be required to pay a $10,000 retainer, although any unused funds would be reimbursed.
Approved moving ahead with the reconstruction of the dilapidated city sidewalk along Spruce Street, in front of the Tower Elementary School and the Scenic Rivers Clinic, at a cost of $34,000. The city council had approved the reconstruction and accepted bids for the work last year, but the city never followed through due to lack of funds. But Ranua said the sidewalk is used frequently by children and the elderly and should be a high priority for the city. “It’s in horrible condition,” she said.