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Morris City Council wants consequences for violating nuisance ordinances

MORRIS – The Morris City Council wants to get serious about enforcing “nuisance” ordinances, but will have to make some changes to the city code first.

On Tuesday, Morris City Manager Blaine Hill presented the council with a list of the various nuisance ordinances the city has in place – everything from cutting grass and shoveling snow to storing junk and cutting down diseased trees.

However, the city code is not consistent about the length and process of notifying property owners when they’ve violated an ordinance or what the penalty should be.  

In most cases, the city is required to give property owners a notice before correcting a problem.

“We can go out and correct any nuisance problem that we want that’s out there … but if you want [property owners] to pay for it, you have to give them notice and you have to give them the opportunity to correct it themselves,” said Hill.

One situation where notices would not be required is shoveling public sidewalks after a snowstorm because it constitutes a safety hazard and can be considered an emergency, City Attorney Aaron Jordan said.

In order to start enforcing nuisance statutes better, Hill and other city staff members recommended that the council work to change the language in the city code to standardize the notice requirements for non-emergency problems.

Some community members have been bringing their concerns to city council meetings over the last several months. On Tuesday, resident Don Rasmussen complained about a property on his street that has consistently had junk in the yard.

“We can’t live with that here in town,” said Rasmussen. “I think it’s a shame that we have ordinances that never get done.”

“I’m really embarrassed because we are the people that run this cotton-pickin’ city,” council member Bill Storck responded. “The whole blame goes to the five of us guys right here. I’m embarrassed to be a city council member. … I’m going to ask you guys tonight that we get something done.”

“We all want the same thing. We want our town to look inviting for people,” added council member Kevin Wohlers. “We just need to get a handle on these trouble spots. … No matter what town you come into there are some trouble spots, no question about it.”

No action was taken on the issue, but the council directed Hill and city staff to work on recommended changes to the ordinance for them to review at a future meeting.

Consolidating economic development funds

The Morris City Council is considering whether to transfer money from two economic development revolving loan funds to the Stevens County Economic Improvement Commission.

The issue caused some debate among members of the council on Tuesday.

City Manager Blaine Hill explained that the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development is urging that existing funds for economic development in revolving loan books be transferred to a local development organization and used as soon as possible.

The SCEIC is a qualifying development organization and already serves as the economic development organization for the city of Morris and Stevens County.

The money in question was provided by the state and federal government specifically for economic development work, Hill said.

Right now, businesses who utilize money from these funds have to take out as many as three loans, one from the SCEIC and two from separate city loan pools. This transfer would consolidate the funds into a single loan pool. The total assets of both city loan funds is about $930,000.

“They’ll be able to use the funds in coordination with any of the loan requests that they get in,” said Hill. “It makes no sense having three different loans. If we pool all the money in one place [business owners] can just do a loan with the SCEIC … it’s going to make it easier for businesses.”

Council members Brian Solvie and Kevin Wohlers both expressed reservations about the proposal.

Solvie said he was worried that the city was “giving away turf” and losing some control by transferring the money to the SCEIC.

Wohlers argued that shifting the money to the SCEIC would take away transparency for how the money was used.

Council member Jeff Miller noted that Hill and two members of the council serve on the SCEIC board, which reviews and approves all of the loans that are made.

Mayor Sheldon Giese added that the money is not from local property taxpayers. He also argued that shifting the money to a local development organization can help it get used more quickly.

The council will hold a public hearing on the issue on Tuesday, May 27 at 5:20 p.m. in the Morris City Council chambers at the Morris Senior Center.

Does Morris need more rental restrictions?

On Tuesday, Morris resident Jerry Lesmeister asked the council to consider additional restrictions or requirements on rental properties.

Lesmeister noted that half of the houses on his street are rental properties. Although the renters have been “pretty good,” Lesmeister said many of the landlords are absent and don’t maintain the properties well.

Lesmeister asked whether the city had considered a restriction on the number of rental properties that could be licensed in a given area.

“I’m concerned, where I’m at, that there are some other houses that are going to come up for sale that could be candidates for rental property and they’ll put students in them not residents,” said Lesmeister.  

City Manager Blaine Hill responded that “property owners have a right to sell their property and other people have the right to buy property.”

The city does have an ordinance that requires new rental properties to have a license. Across the city, about 40 percent of properties are rentals, Hill said.

Other business

  • The council approved payments of $57,396 and $74,506 to Ebert Construction for a new hangar at the Morris Municipal Airport. The total project cost is about $700,000, split between the federal government, state of Minnesota, and city of Morris. The city’s share of the project is about $77,000. The council also approved a schedule extension for the project. Due to windy conditions that delayed putting the steel sides up, the new deadline for construction will be June 18.
  • The council approved a “sign retrorelectivity policy” that will require city staff members to visually inspect every city sign to make sure it meets reflection requirements. This is a recent requirement from both the state and federal government. While there is no penalty for not having a policy in place, City Manager Blaine Hill said the city’s insurance carrier recommends the policy to protect the city from future liability and claims under new state and federal laws.
  • The council approved two changes to the Municipal State Aid Highway system in Morris. The council tried to make changes last year, but their proposals were rejected by the state. The new MSA system will include East Fifth Street from Atlantic to California Avenue and Oregon Avenue from East Fifth Street to South Street. Roads in the MSA system are eligible for state funding for projects.
  • The council voted to stop renting bleachers and picnic tables. Instead, the existing tables will be distributed to local parks so anyone can use them.