The Scandia City Council had a long work session on Aug. 2. The discussion on solar farms returned, but the bulk of the discussion centered around the proposed budget for 2018 and the capital improvement plan, a multiyear financial plan for the city.
Budget 2018 discussion
Some of the budget discussion was over the lack of funds to run the Parks and Recreation Department.
“We charge them to run the parks, but we give them no support and no money,” Mayor Christine Maefsky said.
One possibility that was discussed was selling city lots and using the funds from the sale to fund parks and recreation. Another recommendation was to utilize 0.05 percent of a projected levy to go into the parks and recreation fund for improvements, a revenue of roughly $11,000 per year.
Maefsky also discussed introducing an increase to the City Council’s education and conference fund. Maefsky previously attended a conference with other Minnesota mayors. There was enough in the education and conference budget to pay for the registration, but not for lodging and travel, which she paid for out of her personal account. The proposed increase would be for $500 per council member. Maefsky said that though members aren’t required to attend conferences, she thinks that just doing the minimal education isn’t fair to the residents.
“In terms of expectations to people, educating ourselves, I’d like to see a budget that reflects that,” she said.
Capital Improvement Plan
The possibility of introducing a 5 percent increase in the levy to improve the condition of Scandia’s roads was a hot discussion topic during the meeting. A recent pavement surface evaluation and rating study concluded that despite efforts to improve the roads through a 2014 tax levy, 18 percent of Scandia’s roads remain at a very poor or poor rating, and 37 percent are rated as fair. Forty percent remain in good condition.
“Under our current plan, we’d get to only two-thirds of these roads by 2028,” City Administrator Neil Soltis said.
Soltis introduced a new plan in which Scandia’s residents would be looking at an approximate 5 percent levy increase per year starting in 2018 and ending in 2022 that would help pay for new roads, starting with the roads currently listed in poor condition. The council is hoping to alleviate as much impact on the property taxes as possible.
“If the city bids early, we’re hoping to get a favorable discount and save money by getting the job lower than we’re estimating,” Fire Chief Mike Hinz remarked. About 50 percent of the roads would be covered under this plan with a road life cycle of 30 years. The other 50 percent would likely need to be addressed within the 15 years that follow 2022. The current plan is still in discussion.
Other projects the city has been looking at are grants to help with the cost of other items, including an emergency generator, a city skate park and updated warning sirens. The city also plans to transition to LED lights in the community center building. The cost-savings of such a switch is anticipated to pay for itself within eight years.
Fire Department future
Fire Chief Hinz discussed a current problem facing his team: the lack of volunteer firefighters during the day.
“Small towns are having a hard time finding people,” he said. “It’s not just us; it’s the whole country.”
Hinz said it is difficult to find firefighters who can stay local during the day to go out on a call, since many firefighters work another full-time job and often commute to a larger city.
“There’s only five of us available during the day, and three of us work at the same place,” Hinz said. “We’re getting by the skin of our teeth.”
Hinz proposed transitioning to a duty crew, a model where paid firefighters work assigned shifts, instead of the volunteer all-on-call model the city has been using.
“To have people available means it’s their job,” he said.
When the council opened up the opportunities for solar farms in 2015, the council hoped farmers and other land owners would be able to utilize their land in a newly profitable way. It was a move that many had lauded as green thinking.
“Some people look at it and see an eyesore, but others look at it and see it as green energy,” Maefsky said. “It does speak to our belief in alternative energy. I think we’ve done that, but are we going to sacrifice the whole city to become one big solar farm?”
After two years and six solar farm approvals, the last of which recently saw its final approval and is expected to start construction soon, the Scandia City Council has decided to take a break from all things solar.
“You’re taking a large piece of commercial and all the property around it becomes diminished because of the development around it,” Councilman Bob Hegland said. “I don’t see the value it brings comes close to what the value brings over the next 30 to 40 years.”
Other concerns about environmental impacts played into the discussion.
“I’ve heard conflicting stories about what materials are contained in (solar panels),” Councilman Steve Kronmiller said. “Is that what we want to put out there for decommissioning? Who’s responsible for getting rid of it safely? I don’t see a problem with a moratorium, but we do need to figure out a couple answers.”
A motion to repeal the solar ordinance, which had allowed the development of solar farms, was met with much discussion and deliberation, but ultimately the council voted 4-1 in favor of repeal. The official repeal of the ordinance is expected to happen at the Scandia City Council meeting on Aug.15.