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TOWER— Despite a lengthy agenda, members of the city council here spent considerable time at their monthly meeting taking issue with a divisive letter to the editor written by a member of the …
TOWER— Despite a lengthy agenda, members of the city council here spent considerable time at their monthly meeting taking issue with a divisive letter to the editor written by a member of the Greenwood Town Board.
“I really don’t think the comments were valid,” said Tower Mayor Dave Setterberg, who characterized the letter from Rick Stoehr as “a primary example of misinformation.”
Stoehr wrote his broadside purportedly in response to criticism by members of the Tower Area Ambulance Service (TAAS) of the recent study produced by McGrath Consulting. Stoehr’s complaint, however, appeared to leave members of the city council scratching their heads.
“Our position has always been very supportive,” said Setterberg, noting that the city and TAAS had provided information whenever requested by McGrath. “In fact, we had hoped we might be able to glean something from the study that would help us.”
Stoehr’s charge was particularly mystifying given that Greenwood officials have been the primary critics of the study, which they have complained fell short of answering questions they posed when the township hired McGrath.
Setterberg also dismissed Stoehr’s suggestion that Greenwood residents provide considerable financial support to ambulance service through taxes they pay to St. Louis County. “It would be nice if that were really true,” said Setterberg, who noted that the county provides little financial support for the ambulance. He provided a document listing the county payments to the TAAS from 2009-2019, showing an average of about $10,000 a year, or roughly two percent of the service’s total revenue. And Greenwood’s tax contributions represent only a tiny fraction of the county’s total tax base.
Setterberg said he researched the county payments in order to avoid making misleading claims as Stoehr had done. “If you’re going make statements, you should have the facts to back them up,” he said.
Setterberg also took issue with Stoehr’s claim that Greenwood residents provide financial support for the ambulance service through the fees they pay when they use the ambulance. Setterberg cited the fact that the vast majority of those ambulance calls to Greenwood and elsewhere are paid by Medicare and Medicaid, which often don’t cover the actual costs of providing the service.
“He makes a lot of comments, but really has no facts to back them up,” said Setterberg, responding to Stoehr.
Council member Kevin Norby took issue with Stoehr’s suggestion that meetings by an ad hoc committee established by the Tower Ambulance Commission were a violation of the open meeting law. Norby noted that the committee, made up of representatives from area townships, has no decision-making authority but has been trying to discuss options and ideas without every suggestion creating new headlines in local newspapers. Appellate case law in Minnesota has clearly established that ad hoc committees comprised of multiple jurisdictions and without any decision-making authority are not subject to the open meeting law. Greenwood has been invited to participate in the ad hoc committee but has, to date, declined to do so.
Norby also took issue with the premature release of a preliminary report drafted by the ad hoc committee, which was unexpectedly released in a Greenwood meeting packet.
In addition, Norby addressed Stoehr’s allegation that the city had violated the provisions of its agreement with area townships, under which the townships contribute to the city’s ambulance replacement fund. While Norby acknowledged that the city was late in finalizing a promised business plan for the ambulance, he said that was because they weren’t happy with the initial draft and wanted to produce a better product. In either case, he noted that the city had presented the business plan to area townships recently, well before Stoehr’s letter.
Clerk-treasurer Michael Schultz acknowledged the ambulance service was late in making payments to the ambulance replacement fund for transfer miles driven by the ambulance. He said the check has been cut for months, but he’s been waiting for the ambulance service’s cash flow to improve enough to cover the roughly $8,000 payment.
He said making the now-enormous ambulance payroll is his first obligation. “Our payroll is $10,000 every two weeks,” said Schultz. TAAS’s payroll costs jumped sharply in the wake of its 2018 transition to a high-wage, paid on-call system.
Norby noted that every ambulance service in the region is experiencing financial challenges. Schultz said the challenges are statewide and even national in scope.
City officials all expressed frustration that the township has, to date, declined to bring its concerns to the city in an official capacity, instead relying on letters to area newspapers or town board meetings to air their grievances.
“Greenwood has never come to the city of Tower about any issue when it comes to the ambulance or anything,” said Setterberg. “They have not asked us for information, they have not brought concerns, they have not made any recommendations. What we hear from them is either through the paper or the grapevine.”
Drinking water plant
In other business, the council greenlighted a request for an extension to a $258,000 temporary general obligation note that paid for engineering and design on the proposed new drinking water plant for the Tower-Breitung Wastewater Board. While the TBWWB has made interest payments on the note, the principal is due next month and will need to be renewed or the city will have to repay the funds.
The city had expected that the TBWWB would have moved forward with its new water plant by now, but delays in processing a $3.375 million grant from the Army Corps along with significant cost increases over the past two years, have left the city and township officials still searching for a path forward. Wastewater manager Matt Tuchel noted that the latest construction estimates had jumped again, this time to $5.5 million.
The temporary loan was supposed to have been rolled into a planned Public Facilities Authority, or PFA, loan that was anticipated to fund the portion of the project cost not covered by grants. The extension approved Monday is the only one that the city can request and if the project doesn’t move forward in the interim, the money will need to be repaid.
In related action, the council approved the acceptance and signing of a project partnership agreement with the Army Corps to help advance the release of the $3.375 million in grant funding. That approval was contingent on no significant material changes to the contract by the Army Corps.
In comments to the council, Tuchel said the water plant was advisable as a backup for the existing water plant. He noted that the TBWWB learned several years ago that the wells the communities rely on for drinking water are connected to surface water around the East Two River and that the well water contains certain viruses. While Tuchel said the TBWWB disinfects the water before it’s distributed to homes in Tower and Soudan, the side effects of the disinfection create their own problems, such as occasional spikes in trihalomethanes and other chemicals.
He said the TBWWB had looked at other sources for water, but found that other options were significantly more expensive than construction of a new water plant.
In other business, the council:
• Approved a motion to authorize bids for roof replacement at the train depot. The city has received a $29,550 culture and tourism grant from Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation and is pursuing a $10,000 grant toward the project from the Minnesota Historical Society.
• Approved a motion to submit a letter of support for the reorganization of the Lake Vermilion Chamber of Commerce.
• Heard from longtime resident and community volunteer Richard Hanson under public input. “I want to say I’m so pleased with what’s happening on Main Street,” he said, referencing the significant new development and improvements to downtown businesses. He also urged the council to consider seeking new broadband grants to assist with the further growth of the community.
• Approved a motion to transfer $15,000 from the Hoodoo Point Campground account to the ambulance to cover expenses.
• Appointed Sherry Anderson to a vacancy on the Tower Economic Development Authority.
• Gave the second reading to Ordinance 82M, which authorizes the planning and zoning commission to serve as the board of adjustment in the absence of a designated board.
• Heard from Schultz that he is waiting for appraisals on the city’s cabin lease lots for possible adjustments in the lease rates.
• Tabled a decision on official newspaper until next month, pending additional information.
• Approved a request by the Tower Ambulance Commission to purchase a certificate of deposit with funds currently in the ambulance replacement account in order to earn more interest.
• Briefly discussed the potential need for new ordinance language to address short-term vacation rentals. Council member Joe Morin suggested the city start considering the issue as the rentals have become more popular in town.
• Briefly discussed possible submissions to Congressman Pete Stauber’s office for a congressional earmark. Setterberg suggested a major infrastructure project, but the council didn’t discuss specifics.
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