On more than one occasion, area city administrators have attended Rice Creek Watershed District (RCWD) Board of Managers meetings to voice their concerns with the proposed 2020 budget and tax levy.
That list includes Centerville City Administrator/City Engineer Mark Statz, Circle Pines City Administrator Patrick Antonen, Lexington City Administrator Bill Petracek, Lino Lakes City Administrator Jeff Karlson and Mounds View City Administrator Nyle Zikmund.
“The district is working hard to balance fiscal responsibility with the responsibility we have to our residents to provide services for water quality and flood control. We believe the new budget reflects the priorities of the watershed management plan,” said RCWD Communications and Outreach Coordinator Beth Carreño.
The 2020 proposed budget is $8,186,939, with a total levy of $5,181,376, higher than the 2019 budget of $7,345,030 and levy of $4,710,392. “The owner of a $200,000 home would pay an estimated total of $37.92 to the RCWD in 2020. This amounts to an estimated $1.11 increase from what was paid on a $200,000 home in 2019,” Carreño explained.
During the public hearing on the proposed budget and levy Aug. 28, Statz read aloud a letter he submitted to the board the day before the meeting. It read, in part, “We understand that the board will
be contemplating a 10% increase to the levy, while spending down a significant portion of its excess fund balance. This increase alone is concerning, paired with last year’s 7.5% increase. Additionally, residents of Centerville and others within the Centennial School District will see significant increases in their taxes due to a recently passed school levy. We ask the board to consider reducing this year’s increase to a more modest amount.”
Statz added that the RCWD’s use of the example of a $200,000 home is a bit deceiving. “To use the $200,000 home as a benchmark... that doesn't really compare apples to apples, because what you are doing is you are setting that $200,000 at one spot and not understanding that my house doesn't actually stay at $200,000. If I owned a $200,000 house 10 years ago, and you look at it and say your taxes are only going up $1.39 this year — no, my taxes are going up $1.39 plus whatever tax on the increase in the value of that home.”
Antonen described the 10% increase as “hefty.”
“If we did that as a city, we would have a lot of angry citizens at our public hearing. It is concerning that the only angry citizens here are the city administrators. It is really difficult to understand what you are actually spending the money on,” Antonen said. “I am concerned with your budget process, and I think it should be more open and transparent. Taxable market value is going up and your tax levy should be going down. I hope you guys will consider making some modifications to the budget.”
Petracek said, “Lexington is a built-out community, low to moderate income. We generally try to keep our levy between a 0‐2% increase. One of the things we have been trying to do these past few years to give our community a tax break is by redeveloping and bringing some new value into the community. With this redevelopment, we are trying to spread it out a little bit more; with entities that are going up 10% with their levy, we are kind of working against each other. I would just ask the board to consider a different plan.”
Once again at the board's Sept. 11 meeting, administrators shared that they are concerned with the proposed budget.
“Having gone through and scrutinized your budget a little bit, I thought the legal fees seem to be quite high. And obviously a 10% increase is quite a substantial increase for the taxpayers of Lino Lakes as well as other Anoka County cities,” Karlson said. “I just wanted to let you know as a representative of Lino Lakes it is a little alarming to me, especially the legal fees over $200,000 … what in the world are you spending those fees on?”
Antonen said he agreed with Karlson. “There have been a lot of emails between the administrators in Anoka County who are very concerned with a budget increase of 10% when everyone's levy seems to be holding pat or going down, and your levy is going up,” he said. “It looks like you are spending about $20,000 per month on legal fees, and that's our entire budget for a year for civil legal fees. Lino's is about $25,000, Hugo's is $22,000, Centerville’s is $20,000 and Lexington’s is $20,000. That's pretty alarming when you add all of that up and you guys spend that in one month.”
Manager Mike Bradley stated that the board did listen to the city administrators’ comments from the last meeting and reviewed the proposed budget and levy. He said that one of the problems the district is facing is that it is undertaking some major projects that are spending down the reserve funds. He explained that the district has a policy in place to maintain 40% in its reserves, and if there is no action taken, much larger actions will be necessary in the future.
The board ultimately approved the preliminary 2020 budget and certified the preliminary levy in a 4-1 vote (Manager John Waller voted no). There will be a public hearing on the district's budget and levy at 7 p.m. on Dec. 11 at Shoreview City Hall; public input from citizens and entities within the watershed district will be accepted.
Waller explained that he did some calculations to see how the increase would impact a couple of cities and Washington County as a whole. Waller said that when he looked at the numbers for Hugo, there was about a 13% increase. He said Hugo's contribution to the district went from about $290,000 last year to $333,000 this year. As a whole, the county had to pitch in $928,000 this year, compared to 846,000 last year.
“I personally want to see the money that comes out of Washington County spent in Washington County, that's what I am concerned about,” Waller said. “That's the one thing the district doesn't do to my satisfaction: calculate how that money comes back into these communities that are spending it.”
Manager Steve Wagamon said, “I thought we worked very hard on this budget to get it down as far as we possibly could without damaging communities we are supposed to be helping. I agree that our spending on legal is high, but I also think we have complicated stuff that we are bound by law to do,” he said. “I don't see where we have a lot of places to cut except discretionary spending, and that hurts the very people, in my opinion, that are here talking about this.”
Editor Shannon Granholm can be reached at 651-407-1227 or firstname.lastname@example.org