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Plenty of questions remain in city budget

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After more than four hours of budget discussions, the Farmington City Council is no closer to having a finalized 2010 budget. If anything, they have more to think about than they did before.

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Council members had a double-whammy when it came to their budget talks Monday. First, they held an hour and a half long town hall meeting to get resident input on priorities. Then, they spent nearly three hours discussing options for the upcoming year's budget.

The preliminary tax levy of $9.767 million for 2010 was approved in September. That amount includes funding for $9.4 million in general fund spending for the upcoming year.

By the end of the year, though, council members must decide just how and when and where that money will be spent, or if any of the proposed budget items will be cut from the budget.

That's why the council hosted a town hall meeting. They wanted to get input from residents about where funding priorities should be in the next year. Loudly and clearly, the majority of the 30-some audience members said they want the city to fix the ice arena.

Most of the residents who came to the town meeting were there to represent the Farmington Youth Hockey Association. Several FYHA supporters spoke in favor of spending the money needed make necessary upgrades to the 33-year-old Schmitz-Maki Ice Arena, which needs a new ice and floor system. Those upgrades would cost about $1.2 million. The lion's share of that would come from the city of Farmington, but city staff would also ask that FYHA and Independent School District 192 participate in the cost.

The existing system is starting to fail. That work could be done in 2010, but the payments, as proposed, would be spread out over the next 10 years. FYHA members said they understood the hockey program would be asked to participate in the funding, and indicated they would be willing.

Cuts

The ice arena project is not in the current budget proposal. Allocating funding to the ice arena project would mean the city council needs to find new money. That makes things interesting, because some council members are already advocating cuts to the budget prior to finding any funding for the arena.

Council member Julie May thinks the cuts can come in the area of staff. Exactly what staff cuts would be made has not been determined, though the council discuss the economic development specialist position as one possibility. May suggested eliminating that position for a few years and then creating a new economic development director position down the road. Council member Christy Jo Fogarty disagreed, cautioning that finding funding in the future would be difficult.

Still, Fogarty and other council members talked about reexamining the economic development specialist's position to see if it was the right fit for Farmington. Tina Hansmeier is the city's economic development specialist, but she was not present at the workshop.

Ultimately, May wants city staff to find a couple of scenarios to trim the budget -- one with $250,000 in cuts, another with $350,000 in cuts.

The $350,000 amount is built into the tax levy as a "levy back" for funds the city of Farmington lost when the state of Minnesota eliminated its Market Value Homestead Credit funding last year. The state allows cities to collect that funding from taxpayers to make up the difference, but May is opposed to asking taxpayers for that additional funding.

Skipping that levy will mean cuts to city services, though those cuts have not been identified. The proposed budget does not include any new staff positions, except for a police office to fill a position that would be vacated if a third school resource officer were added to the roster. School District 192 pays the SROs for 10 months each year, the city pays the remaining months. If a third SRO is hired, he or she will come from the patrol division, and police chief Brian Lindquist would like to see that position replaced.

Options

The budget proposal does include a new streetlight utility fee for every property in the city. Through that fund, each parcel in the city would be charged $2 per month. If the proposed fee is accepted by the city council, the streetlight funding would be removed from the city's general fund and placed in its own, self-sustaining category.

Council members also heard a proposal for a franchise fee that would help pay for sealcoating throughout the community. Right now, residents who live on the streets that are sealcoated each year are assessed half of the cost for the seal coating. The rest comes from the city's road and bridge fund, which is gradually becoming depleted.

"If the council wants to make the assessments go away, franchise fees on gas and electric could, with a $1.50 per month fee, make those assessments go away," Roland said Tuesday. "If they would institute franchise fees, we would have an effective tool to pay for seal coatings and it would save time and money."

The council has a month to take in all the information received this week and mull over options. Their next budget meeting has been scheduled for Nov. 9.

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