Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

New clerk-treasurer takes the reins at Tower City Hall

Jodi Summit
Posted 10/17/19

TOWER- With only six days as city clerk-treasurer under her belt, Victoria Ranua introduced the council to a more formal and documented way to approach city business.

Taking a cue from much larger …

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New clerk-treasurer takes the reins at Tower City Hall

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TOWER- With only six days as city clerk-treasurer under her belt, Victoria Ranua introduced the council to a more formal and documented way to approach city business.

Taking a cue from much larger cities and counties, Ranua explained that council members will now be provided with much more information on agenda topics than in the past.

“For each agenda item, there is a background letter,” she said. “I think you will grow to like it.”

The background letter provides the source of the requested action, the details and history of the issue, cites applicable city ordinances or state statutes, calculates any impact to the city budget, and offers a staff recommendation. In the future, said Ranua, the background briefing papers will be sent to council members along with the agenda, at least three days in advance of the meeting, so council members will be fully informed when they actually meet.

The city’s former city clerk-treasurer Linda Keith had repeatedly rebuffed requests by the council to provide information in advance of city meetings.

The usefulness of such a method was apparent at a number of points during Tuesday’s meeting.

Ranua, who has experience with complicated planning and zoning issues, had a lengthy summary of developer Dave Rose’s request to have his conditional use permit considered by the city council, instead of the Planning and Zoning Commission.

“This application was denied on multiple points, starting in December 2015,” she said. In her opinion, she said, the commission had set a very high standard for accepting the application.

“I don’t know that he needs to meet all the criteria at the application stage,” she said. “It’s a gray area in the law.”

Ranua’s background sheet summarized the history of Rose’s interactions with the city, cited the relevant city ordinances, and discussed the roles the Board of Adjustment and council play in zoning matters.

Ranua recommended that the city council agree to review the CUP application.

Councilor Mary Shedd, who also serves on the Planning and Zoning Commission, said the commission was asking the council to bring in some professional expertise to help review and possibly rewrite portions of the city’s zoning ordinance relating to such development.

“We feel we are stuck trying to understand the legal stuff,” she said. “We need to step back and get some help.”

The council agreed to take up Rose’s request, and also agreed to bring in some professional support for both the council and Planning and Zoning on the issues involved.

American Tower lease request

The council reviewed a second offer from American Tower for a perpetual easement for cell phone towers on the Lee Mine hill.

American Tower is offering the city four options, a lump sum payment of $289,918 or a variety of installment plans.

The city is currently receiving monthly payments of $2,016 from American Tower. American Tower, in their letter to the city, said their carriers are demanding “better economics in order to continue to lease from American Tower.”

Ranua noted that the upfront payment would help the city with its current budget issues, such as the need to repay a loan from the League of Minnesota Cities. “Under normal circumstances I would recommend one of the longer-term plans,” she wrote. “However, given we have large expenses pending for which we may not have funds available to cover, the lump sum of $289,918 offers a solution to this issue.”

Mayor Orlyn Kringstad said the lump sum would be a positive financial move for the city at this time. But other council members questioned if this was the best option since it was taking away the $24,000 in annual revenue the city has come to depend on.

City engineer Matt Bolf asked if the city attorney had reviewed the contract and asked how it compared to what other cities were being paid.

“You need to find out the market rate,” Bolf said.

Ranua said the rates were higher than ones she had seen in the Twin Cities.

Bolf said he hadn’t seen the lump sum payment option very often.

Councilor Steve Abrahamson wondered if the perpetual easement was a good or bad option for the city.

“We should have our attorney review this. We are giving away a specific right.”

Abrahamson, who is a realtor, said it is hard to find good sites for cell phone towers.

“We really need to do our due diligence on this,” he said.

The vote on the motion to approve the lump sum payment failed.

The council then tabled the issue, and decided to get an attorney review, have the budget committee review the offers, and create a list of the positives and negatives of each option.

City budget

prospects

improving

Interim Clerk-Treasurer Ann Lamppa, whose last day on the job was Oct. 15, presented an updated 2020 budget to the council and highlighted the changes that had been made since last month. She recommended the council maintain the proposed ten-percent levy increase approved in September. She added in several more revenue sources that had been overlooked, including $8,760 in state fire aid, $29,153 in a tax abatement bond, $31,000 in increased Hoodoo Point revenue (fee increase approved last month), and $13,500 in increased airport maintenance reimbursement aid.

On the expenditure side, the only major change was the loan repayment to the League of Minnesota Cities, and the salary cost for the Emergency Management Director position, which will be held by Jesse Anderson. She noted the city will be making the final payment on the fire engine loan in 2020. The expenditure budget now includes separate items to track the cost of the on-call ambulance quarters, on-call paid ambulance staff, and the volunteer on-call staff.

This updated budget shows $118,965 in increased revenue and leaves the city with a fund reserve balance of $46,643, which is still lower than the city’s historical average, but should be adequate according to Lamppa.

This budget will give the city greater clarity in expenses, and future expenses, Lamppa said.

“If we are fortunate enough to get all the LCCMR grant money, things will look much rosier at the start of 2021,” Lamppa said. “But we still really need to watch our spending.”

Lamppa said that Ranua will start working on a city cash flow budget, which had not been done in the past.

The city’s finance committee will review the budget before the council approves its final 2020 levy.

Tower Harbor Shores loan

TEDA member Marshall Helmberger spoke to the council under public input about the ongoing claims being advanced by Steve Altenburg.

“I had hoped this council could resolve some of the false allegations revolving around the TEDA loan,” he said. “But unfortunately, I don’t believe it is possible to do so since it has become clear that Mr. Altenburg is operating in bad faith, and has, at best, a limited understanding of how things actually work in government.”

Helmberger noted that all the council members had attended the last TEDA meeting and seen the presentation outlining the history of the loan.

“We addressed the false allegations that we knew about from Mr. Altenburg,” Helmberger said.

But now Altenburg had published an “entirely new list of imagined improprieties, in The Tower News.”

Helmberger said these last allegations, which claimed that Kringstad did not properly fill out an application form for the loan because some lines had “NA” on them, was also not based on facts.

“TEDA never authorized or created that application form,” he said. “There was zero requirement that such a form even be filled out….Neither TEDA, the IRRR, or the Tower City Council ever made such a requirement.”

Helmberger also stated that Altenburg’s claim that the loan was in default was not true.

“As soon as we debunk the latest false allegation, Mr. Altenburg invents new and even sillier ones,” Helmberger said.

Helmberger also repeated that Altenburg is not a whistleblower.

“He has absolutely no protection, and deserves no protection under the state whistleblower statutes,” he said. “Since those laws only protect people who make good faith complaints based on facts. When Altenburg or The Tower News claim otherwise, they are misrepresenting the truth.”

Other business

In other business, the council:

 Heard from grant manager Nancy Larson that the city is no longer seen as qualifying for CDBG loans, due to results of the 2010 census. She said the city needs to conduct its own census, because the city definitely should qualify based on the percentage of residents that are low-to-moderate income. The city can develop its own survey and send it out with utility billing, she said. Larson will work with city hall on this project.

 Heard that the city did receive two demolition grants from IRRR, and a grant from Lake Country Power’s Operation Roundup to pay half the cost of a new stove for the civic center. Larson also updated the council on other grant projects.

 Awarded the bid for concrete work at the Lamppa Building to low-bidder Broten Construction, for $42,300. The money will come from the IRRR loan for the initial construction of the building.

 Appointed Eagles Nest resident Nancy Salminen as the city’s alternate member on the Lake Vermilion Bike Trail joint powers board. No Tower resident expressed interest in serving in this position.

 On a 3-2 vote, with Abrahamson and Majerle voting against, the council approved setting a 10-year limit on any new seasonal campground leases. This will not impact any current seasonal site holder.

 Agreed to maintain the two storage rental units used by the fire department, and asked the fire department relief association to cover the cost of $1,020 per year. The council also made a commitment to rebuilding the fire department garage, which will be used to house the third ambulance, as well as the equipment and other items in the storage units.

 Appointed Ranua to all the city committees and commissions on which interim clerk Ann Lamppa had been serving.

 Set city hall office hours at 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

 Discussed the idea of having a paid secretary (at $50 per month) to take minutes and manage agendas for city committees that meet monthly or bimonthly. Ranua will also develop a standard model for the minutes.

 Approved having a Firefighter I/II combined class offered in Tower starting in December. The class will include online courses and testing, but there will be three or four hands-on all-day classes on Saturdays throughout the winter that will meet at the civic center.

 Approved a three-year contract for Forth of July fireworks at a cost of $11,000 for 2020. This cost included a five-percent discount for entering into the contract, as well as a 15-percent discount for prepaying in December. The cost of the fireworks is paid by the Fire Department Relief Association, from revenues raised by charitable gambling and their Fourth of July beer tent.

 Approved a contract with Walker Giroux, the city’s current auditing form, for services for the year 2019 at a cost of $24,500.

 Tabled a proposal from the Johnson, Killen, Sieler Law Firm of Duluth, to represent the city in any additional criminal matters relating to former clerk-treasurer Linda Keith. The firm was recommended by Attorney Mitch Brunfelt, who had been representing the city in these matters. The council noted they needed time to review the proposal, which had just been received the day of the meeting.

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