New parks, trails levy discussed by Blaine Council

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

Two voting members were absent from the Sept. 21 meeting, but the Blaine City Council had enough people to move the 2018 budgeting process forward.

On a 4-1 vote the council approved a preliminary 2018 levy of $26.56 million. This money for the general fund, paying off debt and additional funding for roads and parks maintenance is $2.4 million higher than 2017.

The Blaine Economic Development Authority, which is the council acting as a separate taxing authority, also unanimously approved a $650,000 levy on Sept. 21. This is the same amount as the 2017 EDA levy.

This levy increase would increase Blaine city taxes for a $200,000 home by $20 for the year. A $400,000 homeowner would pay an additional $40 per year just to the city. This does not include property taxes paid to Anoka County, the Anoka-Hennepin, Centennial or Spring Lake Park school districts and other taxing authorities.

Increased funding for parks, trails and roads maintenance, 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 and more funding for roads, parks and trail maintenance are among the options the council is considering for 2018.

But the general fund budget as it stands now has a funding gap of almost $250,000 that the council will need to close by the time it votes on the final budget and levy for 2018 this December. The council cannot increase the levy to make up the difference. The final levy can only be the same or lower than the preliminary levy.

Parks, trail maintenance

Council Member Dick Swanson has had a front seat to seeing Blaine become one of the fastest growing suburban communities in the Twin Cities since he joined the council in 1994. While the northeast area of Blaine is still experiencing tremendous growth and the extension of utilities along Lever Street opens up another area to denser development, Swanson said the numbers will eventually dwindle.

As new residential and commercial developments become less frequent, Blaine will collect fewer park dedication fees, which pay for new playgrounds, fields, park shelters, trails and much more.

And with so much of the revenue being dedicated to paying for the Lexington Athletic Complex and planning for at least one more large park among the new neighborhoods in northeast Blaine, this leaves less money for maintaining existing parks.

The city has been taking $200,000 per year since 2014 of interest earnings from its Capital Improvement Fund and plans to do this through the end of 2018 and this has provided another revenue source for new playgrounds and resurfacing of trails, parking lots and courts and replacement of shelters and park building roofs, but what happens after 2018 has yet to be determined.

Swanson likes the pavement management program Blaine set up, which included a $250,000 levy in 2017 and could be increased in 2018. Rather than increasing the general fund levy and saying it wants more money budgeted for roads, trails and parks, Swanson would prefer a dedicated funding source.

“If another emergency comes up, the odds of our dipping into it becomes a lot less,” he said.

Swanson’s goal is a $400,000 parks and trails levy.

But Mayor Tom Ryan, the longest tenured member of the council with 30 years experience, believes $400,000 will not get enough support from the full council. He thinks it’s too high and that more should go into pavement management.

“If you start with $100,000, maybe $200,000, then do a little bit more in pavement management program. I’ve been driving around this week and we have some streets coming up where we can’t wait too much longer,” Ryan said.

Council Member Dave Clark was the only council member present at the Sept. 21 meeting who voted against the proposed levy because he felt the increase was too high. While he likes Swanson’s concept and knows the city will need another way of paying for parks and trail maintenance as the city starts collecting less park dedication revenue, his top priorities are holding the tax rate at its 2017 level and funding needs for the police department.

“I like the idea a lot. It’s how to we do it within the current budget framework,” Clark said.

Council Member Jason King also prefers to not increase the tax rate by 1 percent, which is what would happen if the council keeps the 2018 tax levy at the amount it approved on Sept. 21. He said funding needs for the police and fire departments are his top priorities. He would support a parks levy at a much lower amount, perhaps around $200,000.

This is the first city budget that new Council Members Julie Jeppson and Andy Garvais will vote on.

Jeppson said she is still learnings the “ins and outs of the budget” and was not sure if she could support a $400,000 parks levy. Jeppson said one of her biggest priorities is a new communications director that would be responsible for keeping up all social media pages, updating news releases on the city’s website, being the point person to respond to journalist’s questions and much more. Swanson also said adding a communications person is a priority for him.

Garvais was deployed to New Jersey at the time the council voted on the preliminary levy and he is currently in Puerto Rico to help with the Hurricane Maria recovery efforts. He said one of his biggest issues when he was campaigning was parks and trail maintenance.

“We really need to have that long-term capital plan on our park system so we can strategically keep our trails and parks up to date,” he said.

However, Garvais would prefer the city develop a more comprehensive parks and trail long-range budget before approving a new levy.

Council Member Wes Hovland was also absent from the Sept. 21 meeting, but he said he is supportive of at least looking at a new parks levy.

“We’ve been pretty conservative over the years with trying to maintain and keep the levy as flat as possible,” Hovland said. “But there are times where we have to start looking ahead. If we don’t take action today, we could be in big trouble down the line.”

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