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Street lights first issue to divide Morris City Council

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Morris Area school students got to see the routine, sometimes boring business of the Morris City Council on Tuesday.

The council for the second year met in a morning session at the school for the benefit of Morris Area civics students, who made up most of the audience.

But in addition to the often mundane aspects of city government, the students also were witness to a relatively polite battle of wills at the council's meeting at the Morris Area High School Auditorium.

The council members were debating adding decorative lights to some downtown areas where street improvements are scheduled to begin soon.

After a somewhat heated discussion of the pros and cons, the council voted 3-2 to spend $50,000 to erect eight to 10 lights along portions of 6th Street, near Oregon Avenue and the Morris Public Library Mall.

Council members Twig Webster and Matt Carrington, along with Mayor Sheldon Giese, voted for the proposal. Council members Jeff Miller and Bill Storck opposed it.

The debate has been going on for a couple of months, and marked the first time that this council, seated about 18 months ago, has been significantly divided on an issue.

Webster and Carrington promoted a plan to erect the lights on portions of Oregon Avenue, especially since bids for the street work came in well under engineering estimates.

Webster and Carrington said the lights were a relatively economical way to help beautify the area and possibly impress visitors -- especially those who might be deciding if they should send children to the University of Minnesota -- and improve business.

"I don't think we should underestimate that value," Webster said. "Our downtown is our front door, the face of our community."

Council members Jeff Miller and Bill Storck have been adamantly opposed to the project, saying it was a lot of money to spend on a mostly decorative project at a time when funds could be spent elsewhere, such as future street repairs.

Webster felt strongly enough about the proposal that he offered a motion to spend $100,000 to erect about 20 lights that would complement the lights on existing power poles. But Giese voted against that motion. The mayor's motion to limit the spending to $50,000 -- which also means the city can avoid advertising for bids on the project -- was approved.

Miller has objected to the lighting proposal since it was first raised, even though the number dropped from 40 to the eight or 10 approved Tuesday.

"If I had my way, it would be down to zero," Miller said. "If we're going to light up (downtown) let's buy more Christmas lights."

Storck, too, has opposed the lighting.

Carrington has sided with Webster throughout the discussions.

"How you decorate your downtown shows how you feel about your town," Carrington said.

Giese said he hadn't heard too many public comments on the issue pro or con.

"Maybe we're making more of an issue out of this than we should," he said.

But the mayor also held to a position he staked out early: With streets in the area being torn up for improvement work this summer, if the city was to install lighting, it was more economical to do it when the street work was begin done. Waiting to install the lights later wouldn't be an efficient use of money, he said.

"This is the time, if we're going to do something, to do it," Giese said.

In other city business:

• Regarding the downtown improvements, the city approved the sale of $2.25 million in general obligation bonds to fund the projects.

The city will pay an interest rate of 5.35 percent over 15 years, with property owners also being assessed for about one-third of the cost.

The average annual payment would be about $218,000, but the city is expected to collect about $93,000 annually in revenue, dropping the annual levy for the work to about $125,000.

• The city will work with West Central Environmental Consultants, of Morris, to empty and remove a 10,000 gallon underground tank on the former elementary school property.

Currently, there is about 3,000 gallons of material in the heating fuel tank, and preliminary estimates put the cost of removing the tank and material at about $900. Documenting and reporting the removal would cost another $600.

In an interesting twist, if the tank has not contaminated surrounding soils, the city will bear sole responsibility for removing the tank and other costs. However, if the tank has leaked, the state requires more testing and evaluation but the Minnesota Petrofund could be used to pay for 90 percent of the work.

• The council approved a zoning change that opens the way for Morris Community Church to buy and renovate the former United Building Center on West 6th Street and Pacific Avenue.

Morris Community Church members approached the city about the project earlier this spring, and intends to close on the purchase of the property early this summer. The city Planning Commission approved of the rezoning from Heavy Industrial between West 5th and West 7th streets, and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks and Pacific Avenue. MCC plans to remove outbuildings, upgrade parking and renovate the main building for use as a sanctuary.

• The council approved a JOBZ land redesignation to accommodate the construction of Bonanza Bean LLC. The company has purchased property in the Morris Industrial Park for the business, and applied to be part of the state program that is intended to promote economic development by offering tax incentives to build new facilities and add jobs.

Bonanza Bean needed the city to redesignate land so that the JOBZ property would be contiguous. The county's other taxing entities needed to approve the redesignation, and the Morris Area School District and the Stevens County Board of Commissioners signed off on the project.

• City Engineer Jay Fier and Public Works Director Jim Dittbenner will provide, as a non-binding courtesy, property line identification. The city will only do the work as official requests for conditional-use permits come into the city. The identification work also is not binding in that certified property maps must be drawn by registered surveyors.

• The city will soon order the equipment needed to broadcast City Council meetings on its cable access channel. The city will first record the meetings and play back the video after the meeting. If the process is smooth, the city will attempt to broadcast meetings live, Hill stated.

• The council approved the appointment of Victor Gades to the Planning Commission. The commission has had a vacancy throughout this year. Gades, in a letter to the city, stated that he has been a resident for 24 years, that he recently retired "and feel that I now have the time to get involved and give back time to the community."

• The council approved a recommendation by engineer Jeff Kuhn, of Widseth, Smith and Nolting, that a short portion of Green River Road by designated State Aid Highway according to the current Minnesota State Aid system. Kuhn informed the city that it had a small portion of mileage of MSA mileage available, and that designation Green River Road would connect it to South Columbia Avenue and Elm Street, which both carry MSA designations. An MSA designation could mean increased funding, Hill stated.