December 8, 2023 at 1:19 p.m.
North Branch and city administrator reach separation terms, fire chief to retire
The North Branch City Council last week approved a successor Fire Chief for Kevin Grote who retires, after a dozen-plus years as chief, at the end of this month.
Grote told the Press in a profile interview when he was chosen to be 2017 Midsummer Days Grand Marshal; that the fire chief post for him was all about being able to help people in their time of need, and contributing to the community. Grote is a North Branch Area Public School District science instructor and most recently also a coach for the clay target-shooting teams.
New Fire Chief Pat Heinen is Second Assistant Chief with the department now, and was approved 5-0. He came to the North Branch Department with 11 years experience on the Stacy-Lent Dept
He’d been interviewed by Mayor Kevin Schieber and Council member Robert Canada and was enthusiastically recommended for the chief position by both. They stated they appreciated Heinen’s willingness to work cooperatively and his desire to learn. The initial appointment is effective as of January 1, 2024 and carries a probationary period for six months.
The bulk of the rest of the city council business was a review of the proposed 2024 levy and budget. It must by state law be adopted by the end of this year.
In a taxation public hearing council held the night before this action, council listened to a number of taxpayers questioning the planned increases in spending and tax collections next year.
In response to concerns about the double whammy of increases in budget and increases in property valuation that are taking place across the board, one older gentleman told council, “If I was 20 years younger I’d be gone.”
The citizen said he isn’t getting anything for the projected increase, which when set at their maximum for tax statement creation, were linked to $1.1 million in added spending for next year.
The fall preliminary budget and levy may go down but council can not exceed the amount when it takes its final establishing vote December 12.
Mayor Schieber declared he would not support an 18 percent increase first proposed for 2024 and that 10 percent is his tops. Council member Kelly Neider also said she would be embarrassed if a levy hike as large as the preliminary one proposed was made final.
Finance Director Sharon Wright explained the reasoning behind the budget proposals reviewed and adopted in September, but said she will build a budget based on whatever limits council requests.
Council member Travis Miles commented that he understood it’s impossible to decrease a budget and still improve or expand city services.
Mayor Schieber suggested “smaller steps” for needed increases.
Wright responded that small adjustments usually don’t result in noticeable changes in an individual tax statement. For example taking the hike down to 10 percent and bringing in an estimated $5.9 million in revenue compared to $6 million in revenue at 12 percent. There is a $357,000 reduction overall but each taxable parcel sees a very small share.
North Branch has enjoyed some economic growth in the past few years, adding 1,500 in population and 600 new single family households, staff pointed out to council. New housing brings in more revenue. but also generates costs, as city staffing numbers grow and equipment has to be added.
The 2024 preliminary budget shows an added police officer, car, a public works employee and a stipend hike for fire calls among other line items.
Wright asked the five council members to talk with her or e mail their parameters for what the 2024 budget should include— or what can be excluded— and she will have a presentation by December 12 for a workshop. The final vote on the 2024 levy and budget would happen in the regular council meeting later.