The Crookston City Council and Ways & Means Committees met on Monday night. Crookston City Councilman Jake Fee ended the evening asking that the next Ways & Means Committee meeting on August 19 include a discussion on the City of Crookston chipping in $250,000 to Epitome Energy. The recommendation is to provide funds to jump-start the air permitting process and would be matched by another $250,000 from the Department of Agriculture.
Fee said he’d like to see the City of Crookston come up with at least part of the funds, to show that they are in full support of Epitome Energy and that they are working with CHEDA to bring the soybean crush plant and biodiesel facility to Crookston. “As a member of the advisory CHEDA board for Epitome Energy I felt that it’s important that we as a City Council wrap our head around wanting to be a big player when it comes to Epitome Energy,” said Fee. “CHEDA has done a wonderful job getting to where we are. Now it’s showing that we are together on this. That CHEDA is going to come up with some money, and hopefully, the City Council will agree to come up with a portion of this money as well to supply this $250,000 to Epitome Energy to get the air permits going. The faster we can do this could even save us a full building season. Time is of the essence, but I think it’s more important that we show the City is in full support of this project happening. And that we’re working side-by-side with CHEDA to move forward on Epitome Energy.”
Councilman Tom Vedbraaten agreed the city should show it’s a player in wanting Epitome Energy in town. He added a lot of people want to make sure Epitome Energy comes. Councilman Steve Erickson also agreed by stating a lot of people wish it were already operating. Councilman Dale Stainbrook also voiced his support saying $250,000 is a lot easier to stomach than the original request of more than $1 million. City of Crookston support for the funding will be discussed during the Special Ways & Means Committee meeting on Monday, August 19, at 7:00 p.m.
The Ways & Means Committee also heard a presentation for Michelle Christopherson on the Small Business Development Center (SBDC). The SBDC has had discussions with several clients in Crookston since January of this year including in retail (4 clients), health and wellness (1), manufacturing (4), housing development (1), Agri-tourism (1), non-profit (2), and home business (1). The SBDC is seeking funding of $15,000 annually for 2020-2022 from the City of Crookston which has been included in the proposed City Council Budget. City of Crookston Finance Director Angel Weasner said several agencies put forward requests for funding on an annual basis. And that those are included in the Council Approved Budget line item which totals $49,000 in the proposed 2020 budget. “On an annual basis we have several agencies that put forward an annual request,” said Weasner. “One of those requests this coming year in 2020 would be the SBDC. They did come tonight to request some funding, and that would be included in that budget line item.”
The committee then approved a grant request from the revolving funds from the Small Cities Development Grant Program. The application was for $20,000 to renovate the 111 North Main (True Value) building, plus $3,000 in administrative costs to Northwest Minnesota Multi-County HRA (NWHRA). Vedbraaten and Fee questioned why an outside agency was still handling the funds. They cited the last time a grant program was awarded when they’d inquired if the CHEDA could administer the funds. Fee said they had raised this issue before, and he wants to make sure that money is being well served. “We raised this issue once before,” said Fee. “We want to make sure that $3,000 [administrative fee] on this loan, and that’s been the case for two loans in a row, is being well served. If it’s just processing a check, then I don’t see it’s worth it. But if they are making sure that all the regulations are being followed and all the data reported it’s maybe worth it at that point.”
Councilman Don Cavalier suggested that NWHRA should come to make a presentation about what they do when administering funds before the next application was reviewed. Fee agreed, saying he didn’t want his concerns to delay what he felt was a quality project that should move. “This project has been talked about for quite a while needing some work on that building,” said Fee. “This is a historic building here in town. They are ready to move on it. I’ve talked to Mr. [Scott] Maves a few different times, and they are ready to move on it and get to work pretty early. It probably isn’t the best to get to the bottom of that $3,000 by holding up a project that is ready to get underway. But, definitely going forward we should probably take a look at what we’re getting for the $3,000 administration fee, or what adds up to about 15% of our loans.”
The council meeting went quickly as the only business was the consent agenda, which passed unanimously. The consent agenda included approving the July 22 meeting minutes, approving bills and disbursements totaling $474,550.50, approving the execution of a Minnesota Department of Transportation Airport Improvement Grant, a resolution to enter an agreement with govpay.net for credit card processing, and a permit for fireworks on August 17 during Ox Cart Days.
Crookston City Councilman Don Cavalier also asked during the Ways & Means Committee meeting for a vote to change the opening of the City Council meeting from a moment of silent prayer to the Pledge of Allegiance, which passed unanimously.
MAYOR & CITY COUNCIL BUDGETS
The committee reviewed the proposed 2020 Mayor Budget ($9,862) and City Council Budget ($191,798). Both budgets had a reduction in travel expenses of $1,000. Councilman Fee asked if they shouldn’t consider increasing the travel expenses. Fee said he thought it would be significant for members of the council to show their support of a bonding bill including Epitome Energy in St. Paul. Fee also asked CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth for his thoughts. Hoiseth said he thought the council being visible while the legislature considered the bonding would be a positive. Fee said he didn’t want the city to miss out on an opportunity with the bonding bill if there wasn’t travel available for councilmembers to interface with the bonding committee. “I don’t think the council ever likes to spend money on ourselves,” said Fee. “We’re very mindful, especially me, that we don’t like to spend money on ourselves. But we do have an opportunity coming forward into the big bonding bill for the state that there is going to be an ask for Epitome Energy to make it a reality. It’s going to be important for the city council and the mayor to be down there in suit and ties interfacing with the bonding committee and other power players in St. Paul. We don’t want to miss out on an opportunity by limiting travel out of our budget. For the most part, we’re fine where we are at but wanted to make sure we did address it.”
Erickson also asked what Council’s Real Estate Taxes ($53,000) were. Weasner explained those are the tax abatements the council approves that are charged to their budget. “We have an expense for real estate taxes,” said Weasner. “That has been the taxes that are abated. We have a public hearing for every tax abatement, and that’s where those line items are paid from.”
The committee also reviewed the IT Budget, which has a proposed decrease of $8,714 to $174,579. The committee asked several questions for explanations on what specific line items are for within the budget. Erickson asked what the Communications budget of $2,300 went to and Director of Information Technology Phil Barton explained that was used for the fax machine, cellphones, and other phone-related hardware. Stainbrook said he was looking at the Office Equipment Repairs and asked if there were any substantial expenses on the horizon that might increase that line item. Barton explained that he’d made an effort to purchase either more reliable equipment covered by warranties or equipment can be replaced relatively inexpensively. “For office equipment repairs I’ve tried to steer our purchasing towards either hardware that cost a little bit more that we know will be reliable long-term or that is covered by warranties,” said Barton. “Or towards purpose-built low-cost hardware. If it’s going to fail on us, we’re not going to take the time to repair it. We’re just going to replace it with another piece of low-cost hardware when it’s a suitable fit.”
Barton said that subscription and dues, which total $40,000 on the proposed budget, is software that helps the City of Crookston do it’s work more efficiently. Adding that while those will likely go up over the years, it will allow the city to keep staffing levels low. “We rely heavily on subscriptions,” said Barton. “They help us keep staffing levels low, becoming a justified and obvious expense. In years to come, the expectation is subscription costs will increase, but personnel costs will remain relatively flat. The goal is the city will never have to add more than one IT person, which ends up being a pretty huge expense.”
Councilwoman Cindy Gjerswold asked how often the city shops subscription services. Barton said it’s a tricky balance between losing time to changing vendors and not getting stuck with a vendor that costs more compared to the benefit the city receives. “Figuring out when to jump ship on a vendor is tricky,” said Barton. “You want to be aware of everything available to you. But I don’t think that’s a good use of taxpayer dollars if you’re losing one week a year to change vendors and I think a lot of people would agree. At the same time if we’re stuck with a vendor that’s 50 percent more in costs than everyone else and not offering 50 percent more benefit that needs to be analyzed sooner rather than later. We try to be aware of all of our options as best we can be and try to balance our cost to benefit [ratio] to see if we’re getting out what we’re putting into it.”
Hoiseth also asked what the risk of the City of Crookston being held hostage with a data breach was. Barton explained that the software used is called ransomware and that the city does everything it mitigate against it. “It’s always a concern,” said Barton. “We do whatever we can to mitigate against it. To be aware of current threats and follow all the best practices, we can to stave potential problems off. But it’s a fine line because the day could eventually come that the one thing nobody was paying attention to becomes the problem. That’s happened at municipalities nationwide. We do what we can to be as vigilant as we can and keep users as well informed as we can.”
BUILDING OFFICIAL BUDGET
The proposed building official budget is $127,891, an increase over the current budget of $30,893. The considerable expense is $35,600 for a proposed vehicle for the department. Fee asked about the merits of needing a new car and City Administrator Shannon Stassen explained that it would probably be at the top of the list for budget cuts. The City of Crookston’s new building official Greg Hefta said he typically drives an older vehicle from the city’s fleet. “The whole fleet has to be replaced as time goes on,” said Hefta. “I’m typically driving a vehicle that has been used quite a bit, and you do have to update eventually. Over time you have to replace equipment as it gets old and gets used up.”
Councilman Clayton Briggs also asked if the $4,000 for travel expenses, which is also used for training costs, was enough with having just hired a new building official. Hefta estimated a week-long seminar would cost $1,500 leaving adequate funds for several single-day training events. “I think that’s plenty of budget for that,” said Hefta. “I think $1,500 like we were discussing for a one-week seminar is adequate for at least two seminars for a year. Absolutely, that is enough training for a year.”