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City of Morris freezes taxes for 2014

MORRIS – The Morris City Council voted Tuesday to freeze taxes for 2014, using an increase in state aid to help offset debt payments for a summer construction project and save for major equipment purchases. 

The council also voted to increase water and sewer utility rates 5 percent, beginning on Jan. 1, 2014.

This year, the city received an additional $153,500 in Local Government Aid (LGA) from the state of Minnesota, about a 7.2 percent increase over 2013.

Despite pressure from state legislators to use additional LGA to lower property taxes, City Manager Blaine Hill told the council he felt it was prudent to freeze taxes but not cut them.

“I really don’t believe we should take a step backwards because we might get locked into that step,” said Hill. He also noted that LGA is the city’s largest revenue source but remains unstable depending on the legislature.

The budget and levy the council approved on Tuesday is essentially the same as the preliminary budget and levy approved back in September.

The budget includes about 9.7 million in total expenses, a 9.2 percent increase over 2013. Expenses in the city’s general fund, the main operating budget for the city, increased about 3.6 percent.

Two funds will see large increases in 2014. The city’s capital outlay fund increased about 25 percent because of the addition of about $68,600 in state aid. This will be used to pay for a snowblower for the Public Works Department.

The library budget also increased about 25 percent as a result of an additional $85,000 for roof and door repairs. This year, the Library Board also asked the city council for a staffing increase, which was not included in the final budget. 

“It’s not the time to add labor because if you add labor that cost is going to be there and it’s not going away the next year,” said Hill.

Morris Public Library Director Melissa Yauk told the council that she feels there is a disconnect between the library board and the city council.

“It would help me do my job if the two groups could get together and decide what they want for the library,” said Yauk. “I don’t know that the decision makers in Morris understand what the library does. … If I could see that you’re at least making the effort to see what’s going on at the library, and then if you don’t want the library that’s fine.”

Hill noted that libraries are the only organizations that are required to be funded at a certain level by the state. The city supports the library at a higher level than the minimum requirement, he said.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of not knowing what you do and not understanding, it’s a funding issue,” said Hill.

Mayor Sheldon Giese concurred with Hill.

“I don’t like hearing that there is that disconnect – I agree that there probably is or there’s the concept that there is, but it does all revolve down to the budget and funding,” said Giese.

The budget also includes a 2 percent wage increase for city employees, a 25 percent increase in the cost of health insurance, and about $15,000 for the 2014 election.

Hill told the council the city needs to raise utility rates because the current rates are not high enough to fund the ongoing costs of operating these systems.

Property owners unhappy about progress of Planning Commission

Business owners on Seventh Street told the city council they are frustrated with the Planning Commission’s work to rezone that area.

“It appears to us that after all these meetings that the planning commission is doing everything possible to make sure that these businesses cease as soon as possible,” said Sid Wilcox, who said he was speaking on behalf of other business owners.

Council member Jeff Miller, who serves on the planning commission, said it was his understanding that existing businesses would be grandfathered in to a planned neighborhood commercial zoning district.

At their most recent work session, the planning commission looked at setbacks and requirements for new construction in the area, Miller said.

Other business

  • City Manager Blaine Hill told the council he plans to meet with representatives from Riley Bros. Properties next week to discuss a purchase agreement for the old elementary school property. Riley Bros. plans to partner with INH Property Management, a real estate firm based in Waite Park, to develop the property.
  • The council authorized a payment of $21,370 to Breitbach Construction for the west side improvement project. This is the seventh payment of an estimated $1.6 million contract.
  • The council passed a resolution setting the annual benefit amount for the Morris Fire Relief Association pensions at $1,850. This is an increase of $50 from the benefit approved last year.
  • The council approved a change order for a contract to build a new hangar at the Morris Municipal Airport. The changes included an additional $1,680 for costs incurred due to cold weather construction. The change also adjusted the completion date for the project to June 12, 2014 to save additional cold weather costs for covering and heating the floor slab of the hangar.
  • Council changed their next meeting date to Monday, Dec. 23 at 5:15 p.m. and approved closing city facilities at noon on Tuesday, Dec. 24.

Disclosure: Editor Kim Ukura is a member of the Morris Public Library Board.