Commentary: Make your voice heard
Most Prior Lake residents won’t know the details of the 2016 city budget until its effects show up on their 2016 property tax statements. Last year, City Manager Frank Boyles got a 10-percent increase in the property tax levy. This year, according, to a June 24 memo to city staff and department heads, he’s going to ask for 11 percent more.
The memo is a public document. For those who want to understand the mindset at Prior Lake City Hall, get a copy of the memo and see for yourself.
Thirty years ago when I was at the Metropolitan Transit Commission, I can recall the general manager and the chief administrator warning staff and department heads in budget memos to expect scrutiny of our budget requests and to be prepared to defend them before the commission. We were directed to develop priorities, control spending and manage resources. There’s none of that here. Instead, the message seems to be, ask for more and forget about accountability. The memo bluntly states: “The bottom line — a tax levy increase of 11 percent is what we are facing.”
What’s in that 11-percent increase?
Let’s look at the memo starting with the debt levy, which reflects capital spending on projects in previous years plus bonds that were issued in May of this year. The memo calls out a $509,000 increase to service the city’s debt or a 4.9-percent increase in the property levy to cover obligations for money that’s already been spent. That’s what happens when government spends more than taxpayers can afford. That’s not all. Get ready for more.
Mr. Boyles’ long-range transportation plan proposes projects for the next four years costing over $61 million, of which almost $37 million would come from taxpayers in the form of tax levies, special assessments or other charges. Tucked away in this wish list are projects the public objected to but remain an obsession at City Hall, such as closing Main Avenue at County Road 21 and extending Arcadia Avenue from County Road 21 to Highway 13.
The proposal for closure of Main at 21 and the Arcadia extension faced stiff opposition last year from the neighborhood and downtown businesses. Residents deplored the idea of destroying Prior Lake’s only historic neighborhood, while business owners predicted (and City Hall acknowledged) that the change would hurt current downtown businesses.
It’s obvious that city taxpayers cannot afford to support the expenditure of $37 million over the next four years on dubious projects while spending another $40 to $50 million on services that residents actually need, and it’s not likely that county, state and federal government will provide the additional $24 million required. So why are they in Boyles’ plan? It’s a reflection of the mindset at City Hall or, as I once heard an official say, “You throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.” That’s not my model for fiscally responsible management.
The general operating budget is set to go up 3 to 4 percent. Mostly these are personnel costs. The memo has no justification or explanation for the proposed increase except a vague statement that “We undoubtedly will have to start the process of increasing our staff in response to increasing community obligations.” What are those obligations? Why is more staff needed?
A $225,000 increase is programmed in the Equipment Maintenance and Facilities Management plan, again without specifics or justification. The bigger and costlier the building (whether needed or not), the more it costs to take care of it — Economics 101.
The one area that doesn’t get an increase is the Economic Development Authority. It already receives $159,000 annually for operations and, according to the memo, “some small investments in economic development programs.” The obvious question is what does the Economic Development Authority accomplish for the taxpayers of Prior Lake. Where’s the return on the $159,000 investment, and how is that money spent?
Finally, my favorite is the incredible $200,000 in the budget to update the Met Council’s 2018 comprehensive plan. All of this will go to staff and consultants for a report with no measurable benefit to the residents of Prior Lake.
Our mayor sees city spending as an “investment” in Prior Lake and called for a larger tax increase last year than the 10 percent the council eventually passed. He likes to talk about growth and development, which is what the proposed 2016 budget is all about — not sustainable, managed growth, the kind that puts people and the environment ahead of development, but growth that means big money for developers, landowners and road builders — full employment for city staff and assorted consultants and contractors. It also guarantees more traffic, noise, congestion, environmental degradation, lake pollution, higher taxes and sprawl for the rest of us. Ask yourself: is this what residents mean when they say a “small town feel” is their No. 1 priority?
The Met Council has 40,000 people living in Prior Lake in its 2040 plan. The mayor and city management have signed on to it. That’s 4,000 more than the population of Richfield today. For perspective, take a drive down 66th Street and check out 66th and Lyndale. If you like what you see, you’ll be happy in Prior Lake. Enjoy the small town feel while you can, because in a few more years it will be gone – if the mayor’s and the Met Council’s vision prevails.
The council will receive the budget numbers on Aug. 3. There will be workshops and public hearings before it’s adopted in September. Last year we heard vague threats about closing the library and similar dire consequences if taxes didn’t go up. There will be more of that this year. Don’t buy it. Ask questions. It’s in your hands. Make your feelings known to the council.