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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Tower looks to update its charter

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 3/13/24

TOWER— City officials here are looking at possible changes to the city’s charter, a key city document that hasn’t been updated since 1997, according to Mayor Dave Setterberg. Some …

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Tower looks to update its charter


TOWER— City officials here are looking at possible changes to the city’s charter, a key city document that hasn’t been updated since 1997, according to Mayor Dave Setterberg. Some of the possible updates mentioned at Monday’s city council meeting reflect changes in the structure of the city government in Tower that have rendered portions of the charter obsolete. “We no longer have the Gunderson Trust, for example,” noted Setterberg.
Some of the updating would be more clerical in nature. The charter is riddled with significant typographical errors which would presumably be fixed as part of an update.
Setterberg also suggested splitting the roles of the clerk-treasurer and going back to having a clerk and a separate, most likely, part-time, treasurer.
The extra cost of hiring a separate treasurer to handle city finances could be recouped by the potential savings on the city’s audit, which would likely not have to be done annually if the clerk-treasurer position was split. The annual audit currently costs the city about $30,000, or about eight percent of the city levy.
Separating the clerk and treasurer positions would also address the longstanding concern raised by the city’s auditor about the poor segregation of duties within the city’s financial operations. Setterberg also noted that a separate treasurer would provide some additional redundancy at city hall.
While such changes to a charter are typically the purview of a city’s charter commission, city councils in Minnesota cities under 10,000 may initiate charter changes without charter commission action. The changes would still need to be approved by the voters, which could potentially be part of the city’s November’s general election ballot.
The council authorized the creation of an ad hoc committee to discuss possible changes in the charter in time to bring the question to the voters in the fall.
At the same time, the council agreed to take another look at the clerk-treasurer position job description as a separate issue.
In other business, council member Joe Morin told the council about planning for the creation of a school forest for the Tower-Soudan Elementary and possibly the Vermilion Country charter school. Morin said the school forest would provide an outdoor learning space for kids to explore and potentially help maintain. The planning group working on the effort has identified about 64 acres of city-owned land on top of the hill north of town that is within walking distance of the school. Designation of the site would be done through a joint powers agreement that would have termination provisions if the city ultimately decided it was no longer in the city’s interests. The designation would not impact the city’s ability to conduct forest management, although it could prompt the city to look at some restrictions on certain activities, such as hunting with firearms, which could pose a safety risk to students.
The council gave Morin a green light to continue pursuing the concept, with no timeline on when the question might come back for an up or down vote.
In other business, the council:
• Approved the final payment of $34,897 to Mesabi Bituminous for work on the city’s kayak landing. The funding will come from an IRRR trails planning grant. Clerk-treasurer Michael Schultz told the council that the IRRR grant will go for the construction of a Green Flush bathroom facility near the civic center, with about $50,000 left for site prep.
• Heard from Schultz that it will take another month to get everything in place on the bonding plan for the purchase of the county public works facility. Schultz said the county was fine giving the city at least until May to get its funding together for the purchase. Among the steps the council must take is approval of a Capital Improvement Plan, which will require a public hearing in advance. The council approved a motion to set that public hearing for Monday, April 8, ahead of the city council meeting. In the meantime, Schultz said county officials have indicated that the city could begin moving some equipment onto the property if so desired.
• Heard from Schultz that Mayor Setterberg and ambulance supervisor Dena Suihkonen recently testified to the Minnesota Senate Taxes Committee in support of legislation authored by Sen. Grant Hauschild that would provide one-time emergency financial assistance to rural ambulance services that are experiencing financial shortfalls. Several other Iron Range area officials testified at the hearing, including Ely Mayor Heidi Omerza and Virginia Mayor Larry Cuffe.
• Referred a proposal to change the harbor north zoning ordinance to allow for single family residential development to the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission for consideration and a public hearing.
• Considered an estimate of the cost to connect the “Around the Horn” trail, which serves as a seven-mile loop trail connecting Tower, Soudan, and the McKinley Park and Hoodoo Point campgrounds. The estimate of $785,300 from JPJ Engineering would likely be paid mostly through grant dollars, although a local match would likely be required. “Tower’s portion would be about $72,000,” said Schultz. “It would have to come down a lot for it to be comfortable for me,” said council member Bob Anderson. Setterberg said he didn’t see the project as time sensitive. “I don’t see a huge rush,” he said. The city will continue to work with Breitung Township to seek a way to move the project forward.
• Discussed a number of possible community infrastructure projects that could be included in an upcoming application to the IRRR. The city is seeking funds primarily to close a funding gap for sewer replacement work between S. Second and S. Third Streets but city officials are hoping to add a few more items to the grant request. Among the items identified for possible inclusion in the request are:
1. Improvements to train depot infrastructure.
2. An airport chip reader.
3. Improvements to water infrastructure at the Lakeview Cemetery.
4. Docking at the kayak launch.
5. Digital water meters.
6. Replacement of solar panels at the train depot, which were broken at some point recently.
• Approved a motion to issue a Request for Proposals from a consultant who can advise the city on the possible restoration and uses of the historic train depot.
• Discussed but took no action on the announcement that the Tower-Breitung Wastewater Board may be receiving $1 million in a federal earmark for expansion of its wastewater treatment capacity to facilitate community growth. Setterberg noted that council member Josh Zika, who has a background in wastewater management, has been exploring some treatment expansion options that might be built for a million dollars or possibly less.
Schultz noted that the city is also putting in a preliminary request for additional federal funding to help pay the cost of water and sewer extension to the Marina Drive area to serve planned development in that area.
• Discussed but took no immediate action on a request by the Tower-Soudan Civic Club to donate up to $6,000 along with volunteer time to spruce up the entrance to the Herbert R. Lamppa Civic Center. Council members expressed concern about the potential need to remove an underground fuel oil tank believed to be located in front of the civic center and that such work would destroy any landscaping the group might complete. Council member Morin said he would check with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to get more information on the possible tank removal.
• Discussed options for handling very large and aging ash trees planted years ago in the boulevard along S. Second Street. Schultz said the city has been receiving complaints from residents there for some time that the trees pose a risk to property, including homes and vehicles parked on the street. Schultz suggested that rather than removing trees on a complaint basis, the city should develop a plan for either maintaining or removing the trees. “That could be leaving them as is, removing the major problem trees, removing all the trees, or maintenance on the current trees,” Schultz wrote in his agenda item on the subject.
The council, after considerable discussion, opted to refer the matter to the city’s Forestry Board.
• Accepted the results of the presidential primary voting in Tower. Out of 54 voters, Donald Trump received 32 votes on the GOP ballot and Nikki Haley received four. On the Democratic ballot, Joe Biden received nine votes, while two voted uncommitted, and one each for Dean Phillips, Jason Palmer, and Armando Perez-Serrato. On the Legal Marijuana Now ballot, Vermin Supreme and Dennis Schuller received one vote apiece.