Blaine still refining budget priorities

Staff Writer
I cover the cities of Andover, Blaine and Ramsey. I have worked at ABC Newspapers since August 2007.

The Blaine City Council will be adopting a preliminary 2018 levy and budget in September that could include more funding for roads, police and communications.

The final 2018 budget and levy will not be voted on until December, but all government groups must submit a total levy amount to Anoka County by the end of September so the county’s property records and taxation department can calculate the property tax impacts and mail an estimated 2018 tax impact document in advance of public hearings in December.

Among the options the council is considering for 2018: a new police sergeant, communications technician, two patrol officers starting halfway through the year, a new for emergency management position for the Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View Fire Department, another administrative assistant to help with staff workload in multiple departments, replacing a budgeted planning department intern position to full-time, police de-escalation training, more funding for parks and facilities maintenance and more money for an Emerald Ash Borer management plan and removing cottonwood trees from the Blaine Baseball Complex.

Blaine has been one of the Twin Cities’ fastest growing suburbs. While the council is looking at new staff and additional maintenance needs to keep up with this growth, property tax growth keeps tax hikes for existing residents at a minimum. If the council chooses the highest cost option out of three scenarios it is considering, the owner of a $400,000 home would pay a little over $3 more per month and a homeowner with a property valued at $200,000 would see a city tax increase of less than $2 per month, according to estimates provided by Finance Director Joe Huss.

Huss presented three options for the council based on its previous discussions. The first is to keep the tax rate flat, which would mean an 8.5 percent general fund levy increase of $1.75 million over 2017. The second scenario increases the general fund levy by $1.85 million. Or the council could increase the levy by $2.4 million over the 2017 amount, which would increase the tax rate by 1 percent.

The 2017 general fund levy was approximately $20.63 million.

There are also options for an Economic Development Authority levy of $650,000, a debt service levy of $3.8 million and a pavement management levy of $250,000.

The council concentrated on the general fund budget at its workshops on Aug. 17 and Sept. 7. The vote on the preliminary 2018 levy and budget is slated for the Sept. 21 meeting.

If the council chooses the lowest cost option to keep the tax rate flat, there will still be a funding gap of $247,275 to have a balanced 2018 budget.

“We need to look at what are our priorities,” said Council Member Wes Hovland. “Think about what our responsibilities are. It goes back to the basics. Police, fire protection and roads.”

One position Hovland wants to eliminate is the communications tech. Huss said the job description of this position has not been fully defined but the general purpose would be to assist in keeping the city’s website and social media pages updated. The city of Blaine does have a web coordinator but this new position would provide additional assistance. The 2018 budget for this position, including wage and benefits, is $87,000.

Council Members Dick Swanson and Julie Jeppson voiced support for adding the communications tech. Jeppson pointed to the two city water loss incidents and the cutting down of trees in the Blaine Wetland Sanctuary as instances when Blaine staff could have used extra help in communicating with residents.

“Today, people also expect communication, constant communication,” Swanson said.

Council Member Jason King wants to keep the same tax rate and said city staff could provide recommendations to the council on how to cut about $250,000 to get a balanced budget.

“They operate their departments. I don’t,” he said.

Swanson said the council needs to prioritize to help department leaders craft a budget the council can support.

Mayor Tom Ryan would prefer to see the 1 percent tax rate increase, which would result in a 2018 general fund levy that is about 11.64 percent higher than 2017.

He argued that there are increasing service needs as the city grows. He said additional funding is needed to help the fire department staff for daytime calls. It has been tough to get daytime volunteers because people cannot leave work as often as they used to. There is a handful of Blaine city staff that provide daytime call backups and Ryan is worried about wearing them out.

“Why do we always look at cutting?” he asked.

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