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City approves preliminary tax levy freeze for 2014

MORRIS -- Residents of Morris will not see a city tax increase in 2014.

On Tuesday, the Morris City Council voted to set a preliminary tax levy of $1.29 million, the same amount the city levied in 2012.

The city's preliminary budget for 2014 is $9.52 million, a 6.5 percent increase over 2012. City Manager Blaine Hill noted that the overall budget includes bond levies and one-time payments for capital projects.

The general fund budget -- the main operating budget for the city -- is about $3.56 million, a 1.9 percent increase over 2012, Hill said.

Changes from the most recent legislative session had an impact on the city budget. Morris received an additional $153,000 in Local Government Aid, which the legislature awarded with the intent of reducing property taxes, Hill said.

"They didn't give us the money to spend it, they didn't give us the money to increase our budgets," said Hill. "We need to use that to help buy down the levy."

Of the $153,000 increase, about $65,000 will go towards paying for the general improvement bond for the road construction project on Morris' west side, and some will go towards offsetting tax levy decreases in the general fund and library fund. Hill estimated the city will have a surplus of about $64,000 that will probably be transferred to the capital outlay fund for one-time equipment purchases or road projects.

The legislature also imposed a levy limit of $1.24 million, plus any special levies, for the city. Because Morris has one special levy of about $53,000 that will be added, the total levy comes to $1.29 million.

The preliminary budget is prepared by city staff members and Hill. The city council will have the chance to go over the budget and levy in detail at an upcoming work session.

One of the big discussion points at the work session will be the Morris Public Library. The Morris Public Library Board requested adding one full time employee and converting two part-time employees to full time -- an additional $73,000 in expenses.

"What they believe is that they've expanded their services to the point where they don't have enough people to cover what they're providing," said Hill.

One example Hill cited is upcoming changes from the Affordable Care Act. Anyone who is looking to purchase insurance through an online exchange program will need to use a computer. Residents are being told to go to the public library to use computers and get help applying for insurance.

"They don't have the personnel or the computers to deal with that influx of people, and I don't know that it's our responsibility to add to the city's budget to meet that challenge," said Hill.

Hill's recommended budget includes an additional part-time staff member to keep the conversation open, but the addition still results in a deficit budget for the library. In his memo to the council, Hill said that he believed the library staff would ultimately need to stay at the same level to balance the library budget.

In addition to staff issues, the library building also needs $80,000 for a major roof repair and a $5,000 repair to the front doors. In the preliminary budget, Hill used $50,000 in the library budget reserves and $30,000 from the city's capital outlay fund to pay for the repair.

Hill's recommended budget also includes a two percent wage increase for city employees, $15,520 to pay for 2014 elections and an increase of $.25 per hour for firefighter wages.

The budget also includes a five percent increase in utility rates and a utility increase in the future for the cost of improvement projects as they are approved.

The city council will hold a work session to go over the budget in more detail before final approval on Tuesday, Dec. 10 at 6 p.m. As part of that presentation, the city will discuss potential savings from a sales tax exemption.

City may delay storm sewer improvement project

City Manager Blaine Hill told the Morris City Council that engineers are no further another with developing specifications for the planned 2014 storm sewer project on Oregon Avenue.

"The study to determine whether we can do the Oregon Avenue project and not create any problems downstream hasn't been finished yet, so it really looks like for 2014 we probably will not have a public improvement project," said Hill.

Other business

• The Federal Aviation Administration approved a grant for a new hangar at the Morris Municipal Airport. FAA officials indicated that the city will likely have to move forward with a parallel taxiway project that had previously been put on hold.

• The council approved a final payment of $548 to F and S Concrete of Garfield, Minn., for sidewalk work on West Fifth Street from Wyoming Avenue to Lyndale Avenue. The total cost for the project was $5,605.

• The council approved a payment of $375,300 to Brietbach Construction for construction work on the West side of Morris. The total cost for the project so far is $932,200.

• The council approved a payment of $220,100 to Dore and Associates for work demolishing the old elementary school building. The total cost for the project so far is $544,560.

• The council approved a multi-agency law enforcement joint powers agreement for participation in the Minnesota Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Police Chief Ross Tiegs said Investigator Jason Reed will be stepping up his work as part of this task force.

• The council voted to participate in a phase retirement option program through the State of Minnesota Public Employees Retirement Association. Under the program, an employee who plans to retire can continue to work for the city part time for up to five years. City Manager Blaine Hill said this program would be useful for Morris Transit, which can have a hard time finding drivers to work part time hours.

• The council authorized city staff to sell one of Morris Transit's busses. The 2001 vehicle will be auctioned on beginning next week.

• The council accepted a donation of $500 from Cargill Cares for the Morris Fire Department.

Kim Ukura serves as a volunteer member of the Library Board.