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Tower council struggles with reorganization

Posted 1/28/20

TOWER— Past practice ran into questions of legal foundation here on Monday as clerk-treasurer Victoria Ranua provided a lengthy report to the city council about the lack of records to support …

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Tower council struggles with reorganization

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TOWER— Past practice ran into questions of legal foundation here on Monday as clerk-treasurer Victoria Ranua provided a lengthy report to the city council about the lack of records to support several city commissions or other positions that are typically filled during the city’s annual reorganization.
Ranua also recommended abolishing several commissions that haven’t met in years, and some city positions where duties are ill-defined or unnecessary.
It was all part of Ranua’s stated mission to better ground the city’s actions in its charter, ordinances, and state law.
“Sometimes things have been done that don’t follow state law or the city’s own ordinances,” said Ranua.
That process will clearly take time and the council didn’t act on most of Ranua’s recommendations on Monday.
Instead, councilors tabled action on most parts of the reorganization to give them time to review options and consider Ranua’s recommendations, including the abolishment of the police, public utilities, gambling, and liquor commissions as well as the budget and finance committee.
She also recommended abolishing the city’s storefront loan committee and transferring authority for managing the program to the Tower Economic Development Authority.
She also proposed abolishing the city’s blight committee since it’s only defined function is to hear appeals of citations issued by the city’s non-existent blight officer. Ranua noted that other city entities, like the tourism and development authority, which was established by ordinance in 1967, has no membership and has been inactive for years.
Ranua noted that she can find no founding documents for the city’s charter commission and said she is unclear on the proper terms of office for members of the commission other than guidance from state law. Councilor Sheldon Majerle suggested that the terms might be continuous, although he was uncertain. State law sets the terms of office on a city charter commission at four years. The city currently has three vacancies on the commission.
The city also has vacancies on the Gundersen Trust board as well as the planning/zoning commission, with no volunteers having stepped forward despite advertisements for the openings. Mayor Orlyn Kringstad urged councilors to “beat the bushes” for a recruit for the Gunderson Trust. The council did approve a motion to ask TEDA to recommend one of its members to serve on planning/zoning given that most of the matters that come before the commission are development related. Any TEDA member appointed to the commission would have to be a city resident or a business owner to comply with the membership requirements of the commission.
The council also approved the appointment of Miranda Kishel to TEDA to fill the vacancy left by Marshall Helmberger, who has assumed the position of TEDA executive director.
The council also agreed to amend its Ordinance 86 to reduce the number of airport commission members from the current eight to a minimum of four, with continuing terms. Ranua said she would research the amendment process and said she considered it a test run for a number of other ordinance updates that will need to be done in the next year. The council also motioned to have Ranua research the process to repeal an ordinance establishing representation on the long-defunct Vermilion Landfill Authority.
In other reorganization business, the council voted to issue a request for proposals for a new bond counsel, but voted down a suggestion by Kringstad that the city seek proposals for a new city engineer. Ranua said establishing a working relationship with a new engineer would be time consuming and that she preferred to stay with a known entity.
The council later tabled action on the official newspaper to give them more time to review sealed bids that the council opened at their Monday meeting. The bid from the Tower News appeared to be lower in cost, although Ranua had asked for circulation data as well. Publisher’s statements submitted by the two papers showed that the Timberjay’s Tower edition has more than twice the number of paid in-county mail subscriptions as the Tower News. The council is expected to take the issue up again at their Feb. 10 meeting.
The council also took up the issue of pay for city positions, which prompted a discussion about whether the city should move away from offering set salaries for many city positions in favor of hourly wages that would require employees to actually document their activities. Ranua took particular issue with the emergency management director position, for which the city pays  former Breitung police chief Jesse Anderson $200 a month. Ranua said she has never had any contact with Anderson, has seen no job description, employment file, or work product since beginning her job in October and she has recently discontinued paying for the position.
“If you went to a wage amount, then you are getting a timecard from that individual,” noted Ranua. “When you’re setting that salary, you don’t have that interaction.”
While Ranua said she wasn’t necessarily recommending a change, she did note that the city of Tower is paying the highest per capita costs for police and ambulance service of any city under 2,500 in the state. That’s based on 2017 data maintained by the state auditor, and it doesn’t include the sharp increase in costs for the Tower ambulance service since 2017.
“I’m wondering if we shouldn’t look at some other cities and try to find out why we are where we are in terms of per capita expense,” said Kringstad. “Why are we number one?”
After more discussion, the council approved a motion by council member Mary Shedd to table action on salaries for several city positions until an comparison of costs with other cities could be completed. Ranua noted that the League of Minnesota Cities has wage comparison information that the city could access. The council then established a committee, including Kringstad, council member Rachel Beldo, and Ranua to look into the issue
.
Other business
In other action, the council:
 Unanimously approved the hiring of John Harju to fill the full-time maintenance assistant position being vacated by the promotion of Ben Velcheff to maintenance director. The hiring committee had recommended Harju after interviews with various applicants.
 Appointed the following individuals to serve as election judges for the upcoming presidential nomination primary: Morgan Carlon, Terri Joki-Martin, Julie Johnson, Marjorie Johnson, Sheldon Majerle, and Mandy Northrup. The election is set for March 3.
 Adopted a new city council meeting schedule that calls for one regular meeting per month, a reduction from the previous two meeting per month schedule. The council still retains the right to call a special meeting for city business at any time.
 Approved a resolution to continue to be a sponsor for the state’s cross-country ski trail grant-in-aid program for the ski trails maintained by the newly-created Wagoner Trails Club.
 Refused a request from Tim Kotzian to add $450 in costs associated with the demolition of a basement at 711 Main Street to a $1,315 interest-free loan issued to Kotzian by former clerk-treasurer Linda Keith and former Mayor Josh Carlson from city funds. The removal of the house was completed last year as part of an IRRR-funded residential demolition project, but both the city and the landowner had agreed to split the remaining 25 percent match.
Ranua, in a memo addressing the issue, noted that the only council actions associated with the project specified that the landowners were to be billed for their share of the project, and that there is no indication that the council ever authorized a loan to cover the bill. “There are very limited instances where a city can issue a loan, but in all cases it must be authorized,” noted Ranua.
Complicating the issue is the fact that the initial demolition did not include the basement, which cost an additional amount to remove. Kotzian had indicated he was willing to pay half of the local match for the basement removal but asked the city to cover the other half or put the full amount onto his no-interest loan. Ranua said the city had not budgeted for the expense and that, based on previous motions, it appeared to have no obligation to pay half the bill since the original project did not include the basement.
 Approved a motion giving council members until Feb. 6 to provide a list of their priorities for 2020 to the clerk-treasurer.
 Heard from John Bassing under public input that the local Blandin broadband group has issued an RFP to engineering firms to conduct a feasibility study needed to submit a request for Border-to-Border broadband funding from the state. He said it would take 2-4 months to complete the study once an engineer is selected and that letters of support and interest in broadband service from the Tower area would help strengthen a funding application.
Instructed Ambulance Director Steve Altenburg to obtain a second and more definitive quote for repairs to the emergency brakes on the ambulance scheduled for retirement in May. Altenburg had estimated the cost of the brake repairs at approximately $2,500, but argued that the revenue generated by the runs between now and its retirement would be about $15,000.  Council member Mary Shedd noted that the runs would be occur in any case, using a different ambulance, so it was the only justification for the repair would be to reduce wear and tear on the other rigs over the next few months.
Council member Majerle said he’d be more comfortable with a second and more defined quote before authorizing the repair.
Handed off a request for a DNR trail easement to TEDA.
 Authorized the temporary transfer of general funds to TEDA to make payment on invoices from ongoing finishing work at the Lamppa Manufacturing building. Ranua noted that the city has paid these bills all along, but that TEDA now has its own account and that the transfer of funds, which will be reimbursed by the outstanding IRRR loan, will be quickly recouped. According to Ranua, the transfer and associated resolution areintended to create the kind of “paper trail” that was often lacking in city fund transfers.
 Heard from the Minnesota Department of Health that the latest water test showed the city’s water to be back within safe parameters for haloacetic acids and trihalomethane.
 Heard more complaints from former clerk-treasurer Linda Keith’s father, Bob Pratt, about advertising for the Tower Harbor Shores town homes.

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