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November 13, 2019

10/31/2019 3:30:00 PM
NB City Council sharpens budget pencil

North Branch City Council members set aside a portion of last week’s meeting to continue to absorb budget data and fiscal analysis, preparing for the final vote on a 2020 levy by December.  North Branch Finance Director Joseph Starks shared year to date numbers for city enterprise (revenue generating like liquor store) funds and general fund and the council took another glance at the Capital Improvement Plan.  He told council members to “reach out” to staff with any specific questions between now and when the vote comes on the final levy.

North Branch City Administrator Renae Fry also walked everybdoy through a fee study that was compiled by Ehlers.  Fry said the city hears about development costs being high and so the EDA commissioned a review comparing what North Branch charges for developers in trunk fees, sewer access charges, park dedication, stormwater and others versus what several similar-sized Minnesota cities charge.  If acutal rates and fees are going to be revised, there will need to be a more indepth analysis of the city’s infrastructure age, debt load and future needs also done.

To this future action-- on a motion by Council member Brian Voss, council voted 5-0 to direct staff to get the necessary background information for possible revisions.

Starks in his overview of this year’s budget told the council the enterprise funds are “no concern” and also to not worry that the General Fund at this time of year shows expenses over revenues, because the county distributes October property tax payments towards year end.

The Capital Improvement Plan is a planning and budgeting tool and as council looked over items in the CIP, Administrator Fry said “...just because something is on the CIP there is no guarantee” it will be purchased. “We take each year as we go,” and it’s up to council to determine what’s feasible to check off the list.

The CIP includes sidewalks, trucks, street improvements, city hall computers, there’s a police station fund being built, a mower in the future, and park improvements, etc.

Another consideration in finalizing the budget is city debt.  

Starks will have a full debt wrap up later, but Fry mentioned that the city re-financed some debt load in 2017 and got a “really really good interest rate” but also stretched out some of the maturity dates.  She added that about 240 water hook-ups are projected in the next few years in newly platted and approved developments,  that will help utilities pay off projects that were done prior to the real estate crash. North Branch utilities didn’t see the new customers’ revenue come in as predicted-- but will now.

~North Branch Council also met in special session Monday afternoon last week.
Administrator Fry asked council to help create a specific application for upcoming vacancies on the Water & Light Commission.  She said appointments have been made in past years with little  professional qualifications called for.  The city should be assessing applicants “more wholistically” she advised.
Water & Light is a multi-million dollar business essentially,  and commission members should be evaluated based on experience, talents, and operational knowledge.  
She had the council members brainstorm qualifications that a commission member should bring to the table.  An application posing specific questions for applicants will be drafted.  Council will see the document in time for interviewing interested applicants hopefully by the end of this year.
The Water & Light Commission will have two seats expiring in 2020.   Several utility employees  observed the special meeting in the audience section.
There’s also a question on keeping a council member sitting on the commission as a “liaison” which currently is the set-up, Council member Kelly Neider is liaison.  With Schaps the other member is Chris Bibeau.
The city council also needs to take official action on a request forwarded by the commission for the city to officially ask the state legislature to expand to five members.  Because of the legislative session timing there couldn’t be five (two extra) members any sooner than the city January 2021 appointments.

The ordinance regulating how to appoint a Water  & Light commissioner also states that a commissioner must be a water and light customer, and this too is under review, said Fry.
North Branch was sued by current commission chair Peter Schaps, when the council changed the ordinance after Schaps had been appointed, to add the customer condition.   Schaps has his own water well and is not on the municipal electric system.  He prevailed in his lawsuit arguing he could not be removed by an after-the-fact council action. A district judge ordered his appointment may not be rescinded.

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