Residents of the city of Tower owe a debt of gratitude to a number of individuals whose hard work saved the city from an unprecedented financial crisis. As we report this week, the mismanagement of the harbor trails grant by the former city clerk-treasurer and the complete lack of oversight of her activities by the former city council, had left the city facing a catastrophic situation as early as March when existing city funds would have likely run dry, leaving the city unable to fund basic operations.
At risk was not just the $120,000 in engineering costs that the city was forced to pay from its own funds after the former clerk-treasurer failed to account for those costs when bidding the project, but yet another $343,000 in grant funds that officials with the Legislative-Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources, or LCCMR, had withheld once they understood the extent of the mismanagement and outright dishonesty surrounding the city’s prior handling of the project. Thankfully, a number of individuals took the steps necessary to restore the LCCMR’s confidence in the city. Nancy Larson, in particular, spent countless hours gathering information and laying out in great detail for state officials exactly how this project went awry and determining how best the city could still meet the goals of the project. In doing so, Larson made it possible for the LCCMR to get to “yes” and release $324,000 in state funds that they had previously suspended. An additional $19,000 is slated to be released pending additional legislative approval.
The current city council also deserves credit. Had they not taken action back in June to suspend the former clerk-treasurer, there is no chance that the LCCMR would have approved the release of these funds. The former clerk-treasurer had not only made major alterations to the project without seeking prior LCCMR authorization, as required, she had repeatedly misled state officials by submitting false reports about the status and nature of the work being done at the harbor. LCCMR officials cited those inconsistencies, which they had confirmed through their own investigation, during last week’s LCCMR board meeting.
Interim city clerk Ann Lamppa also spent considerable time tracking down the documents Larson used to make her report to the state, while new city clerk-treasurer Victoria Ranua made the case in person to the LCCMR board when they met recently in St. Paul. Ranua’s prior experience managing major LCCMR grants undoubtedly helped increase the board’s confidence that the city is now in capable hands and that future grants will be managed with transparency and professionalism.
None of this Herculean effort should have been necessary. Had the former city council engaged in proper oversight on this project, they would have known well in advance that the project had run off the tracks. That’s because the Timberjay reported on the exact discrepancies between the work plan approved by the LCCMR and the project that the council put out on bid, as well as the need for the city to do a project amendment to obtain authorization for the changes.
Our initial story, titled “Questions remain over handling of harbor trail bid”, was published on Oct. 4, 2018, in plenty of time for city officials to act. Former city officials either didn’t read the story or chose to dismiss it as “fake news” as they did with much of the critical— and accurate— reporting that the Timberjay undertook during the troubled prior administration. Rather than attacking the messenger, as city officials did almost continuously for more than two years, they should have attacked the problem. Instead, they ignored it.
The latest action by the LCCMR is encouraging, not only because it provides a critically-important financial lifeline, but because it points to the progress that’s been made in getting the city itself back on track. While there’s still plenty of work to do after five years of mismanagement, city officials have finally turned the corner and are heading in the right direction.