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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

‘We’re not paying to fix your streets’

Ely mayor gets schooled in state bonding realities

Keith Vandervort
Posted 12/5/17

ELY – The State of Minnesota is not in the habit of borrowing money to pay for city street projects.

Minnesota State Senator Tom Bakk forcefully reminded Ely Mayor Chuck Novak of that fact of …

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‘We’re not paying to fix your streets’

Ely mayor gets schooled in state bonding realities


ELY – The State of Minnesota is not in the habit of borrowing money to pay for city street projects.

Minnesota State Senator Tom Bakk forcefully reminded Ely Mayor Chuck Novak of that fact of life this week.

The Ely Economic Development Joint Powers Board hosted their annual legislative forum at the Grand Ely Lodge Monday afternoon.

Bakk opened the session by summarizing the year ahead for the legislature. The state legislative session starts Feb. 20 and will run until May 20

“We did a two-year budget in the state last year,” Bakk said. “So, the main thing that happens this year is our budget forecast, where we see how the revenues are coming in as compared to how they were forecasted last February.”

With the new revenue forecast numbers, released on Tuesday and showing a $188 million shortfall, the governor will develop a supplemental budget of things he wants to submit to the legislature. “We will either have more money or less money, or about the same, but it will determine what is available for us to spend,” Bakk said.

A potential general fund bonding bill of up to $1 billion is a real possibility this year, according to Bakk. “We will have the opportunity to get some projects for northern Minnesota and all around the state.”

Novak pushed his request for the 10-year-old 17th Avenue reconstruction project, one of two items on his wish list.

The city of Ely has had some funding progress on the project, but an additional $1.3 million to $1.6 million is needed to reconstruct the dirt road that runs along the west side of Vermilion Community College between Camp Street and Miners Drive.

“This would be a good year for that (bonding request) to come through,” Novak said. “We have a dilemma down there. The college students who live in the barracks or trailers have to walk that dirt road to get to school in the morning. It is almost a safe routes to school (issue).”

Novak continued to build his case, voicing the city’s desire to have curb and gutter and sidewalks on the road by the college. “We can’t stripe intersections on Sheridan Street because the Minnesota Department of Transportation rules call for a sidewalk to stripe a pedestrian crossing. It is unsafe for the students. We need to do something with that.”

Just recently, a storm water lift station failed in the area in question. “In our plan, if it had been done, there would be no lift station, because it is all redesigned for a gravity flow (system),” he said. “Now we have a dilemma. We have to spend thousands of dollars to replace a lift station that will be a useless piece of equipment when we complete the project. That doesn’t seem like a wise use of taxpayer money.”

Novak added, “We’re going to push hard on that this year, and we expect total support from our representatives to get this through the bonding bill.”

“At the risk of sounding like the Grinch, this is a city street,” Bakk said. “I’ve said this before. If we’re going to start using state and general fund bonding to rebuild city streets for the state, where is it going to end?”

Bakk said he realizes streets and infrastructure need to be repaired and upgraded. “Is there a way to earmark some money to the college to put (Minnesota State Colleges and Universities) on the hook for that because they need the improvement? Maybe?” he asked. “We just can’t start building city streets with general fund bonding. We don’t have enough muscle to be successful. Every city in the state will all of a sudden want their streets rebuilt. I’m sorry to sound like the Grinch. I’m pretty powerful down there, but you can’t make the argument that this is somehow the state’s responsibility. I would love to help, but the reality is it is still a city street.”

Novak cited his frustration with how that state spends money. “The city of Ely is very beneficial because it has a strong sales tax ability,” he said. “When I go down (to St. Paul) and talk to our anti-LGA people, I have to make this point because they look at rural Minnesota as being on welfare.”

According to the Department of Revenue, $3.2 million in sales tax is collected in Ely. “We get $2.1 million in LGA, so I figure, with how much money has gone to St. Paul over and above LGA, getting a little bit back once in a while wouldn’t hurt,” Novak said. “I’m going to keep pressing for this because it is a top priority of our Economic Development Authority and a top priority of the city. I’ll knock on everybody’s door as long as I have to get this through. This is important to us.”

Novak added, “When you look at our transportation needs, you can’t drive a truck down that dirt road anymore. We spend a ton of money with dust control, grading and everything else. We’re not rich enough to do this street ourselves. We’re asking for some help and I’m going to fight this every which way I can.”

Bakk talked about the importance of precedent in the state legislature. “When you do something, someone comes along and says, ‘You did it for them how about us?’ That sets a whole new precedent,” he said. “I’m sorry Chuck, I’m just not powerful enough to make that happen. I can’t make the argument that the city of Ely should get its streets rebuilt by the state. Find something else.”

Bakk touted Ely’s other request, a recreational trailhead on the city’s west end, as a great bonding project. “That could be successful,” he said.

Novak said three different trails, the Prospectors Loop, Mesabi Trail, and the Taconite Trail, would all converge at a common area just west of the Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital and Essentia Clinic complex.

“We have already designed it with secure areas for parking,” he said. “The good news is that St. Louis County allows ATVs on the highways. We have routes through the city for access to businesses. We’re going to push hard for that project too.”

Town of Morse Supervisor Robert Berrini voiced his concerns for the trailhead. “You have to remember that all this land where the trails are going through is in the Town of Morse,” he said. “We get a lot of complaints about these people going by their houses.”


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