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Marathon meeting ends in indecision

Jill Schramm/MDN Randy McDonald, director of the Souris Valley Animal Shelter, speaks to the Community Development Committee Thursday about a proposed shelter expansion, as shown on the poster board behind him.

Nearly three hours of testimony left members of Minot’s Community Development Committee without immediate answers for applicants seeking nearly $12 million in community facilities sales tax dollars Thursday.

Committee members pushed back any decision until after release of the preliminary 2018 city budget on Aug. 7, citing the need to determine what the city’s financial situation looks like before awarding any money. The Community Facilities Fund is expected to contain $4.8 million by the end of the year, which the committee could award for disbursement in 2018.

Nine applications were received for a children’s museum, zoo improvements, Carnegie Center repairs, animal shelter expansion, Minot State University Dome seating, Municipal Auditorium flooring and lighting, a YWCA handicapped-accessible shower, updates to council chambers in City Hall and construction of a recycling transfer facility.

The debate is whether to award those funds to the type of community projects that residents might have had in mind when they approved the Community Facilities Fund in 2011, or direct the funds to city projects in an attempt to keep the city budget and property taxes down.

“I will say what no one wants to hear but must be said,” City Manger Tom Barry said. “There is clearly a need to balance our community’s desires with the fiscal realities we face today. The city is facing one of its most challenging fiscal times.”

He noted the city is facing a $9 million budget deficit, $112 million in local costs for flood protection project and a 33 percent decline in sales tax collections since 2014.

“Every dollar, therefore, we distribute through this Communities Facilities Fund is a dollar we have to raise some other way – like through a tax increase, like through a bond, like through a rate or fee increase,” he said. “Our fiscal situation as a city is not the way it was years ago when this fund was developed.”

Minot resident Jon Backes asked the committee to stay true to voter intent. He said his father, Orlin, who led efforts to promote the sales tax ordinance, would not have supported using the money for a city recycling transfer facility.

“Not saying that’s a bad plan. It’s just not a plan consistent with this particular ordinance. I ask you to be mindful of what that intent was,” he said.

Backes said if the city wishes to reallocate the community facilities’ 30 percent share of the second penny sales tax, it needs to do so in a transparent way going forward and not retroactively.

Committee members felt they needed time to mull the requests and hesitated to make a decision under the fatigue of three hours of testimony and an uncertain amount of discussion that would need to take place.

However, council member Shannon Straight, a committee member, voiced his frustration with the lack of a decision.

“They deserve an answer from us,” he said of applicants. “These folks submitted applications. We have had ample time to review them. This is where government grinds.”

“My apologies to everyone who has invested time, who are prepared for an answer today,” said Lisa Olson, committee chairwoman and council member. “We need to make the right decision, and I don’t believe we are prepared to make that decision today.”

Committee and council member Stephan Podrygula said the city should research additional funding sources for community facilities, such as a restaurant or lodging tax, as part of reaching a decision on grant awards. He said they are all good proposals, but the Community Facilities Fund isn’t adequate to address all the projects.

Mark Lyman, board member for the Children’s Museum, of Minot was asked whether the organization could get a private loan for its $8 million to $10 million project. Lyman said revenue generated by the museum will go toward operations, not construction. It would be difficult to get a bank loan based on funding that would have to come from donations, he said.

The museum board is requesting $2.5 million from the facilities fund.

The museum is partnering with the Minot Park Board, which is providing land for the proposed Magic City Discovery Center. The city can give only to a nonprofit through a political subdivision or through an enterprise agreement.

Souris Valley Animal Shelter indicated it is developing a memorandum of understanding with Ward County Emergency Management but did not have it in place yet. That lack of a solid partnership with a government agency at this time added to the hesitancy of the committee to make any immediate awards.

SVAS is requesting $900,000 toward expansion of its facility.

The YWCA is asking for $5,000 but did not have a representative at the meeting to discuss whether it is working with a political subdivision or was seeking an enterprise agreement. City Attorney Kelly Hendershot said state law allows for city gifts to support the poor but the YWCA request would not automatically fall in that category, even though the request would benefit a women’s shelter.

MSU President Steve Shirley lobbied for $2 million to replace 36-year-old seating in the Dome.

“It’s important that our nearly 40-year-old Dome remain relevant,” Shirley said.

Rick Hedberg, vice president for advancement at MSU, said as seats become damaged, MSU has used extra seats in storage, but it is running out of those seats and new ones are no longer available for purchase. In some cases, seats have been moved around to fill in for damaged ones, but that’s not a long-term solution, he added.

The committee expressed concerns – its own and from the community – about giving more money to MSU, which already has received $5 million for improvements at Herb Parker Stadium and for an air dome. Shirley responded MSU didn’t just come with its hand out but raised $8 million in other funds for those projects.

Asked about the response if the request is only partially funded, Shirley said fundraising for seating would be difficult because of the type of project and the recent conclusion of the last campaign for the air dome.

“I just worry about whether or not we would be successful doing that,” he said.

Minot resident Rhonda Bugbee asked the committee to reject MSU’s project. She said the committee should fund projects that help relieve the city property tax.

Three of the applications are city projects.

The city is seeking $550,000 to repair settling and do point tuck work on the historical Carnegie Center. Regardless of whether the project receives funding, the city is obligated to find the dollars to make the repairs, Public Works Director Dan Jonasson said.

The city also is requesting $70,000 to add a handicapped-accessible ramp to the council dais in City Hall, add technology for the hearing impaired and add technology to improve cable and online coverage of meetings. The request is for 1.5 percent of the $4.8 million to break down barriers that make participation in city government difficult for residents, Public Information Officer Derek Hackett said.

The city is requesting $2.5 million for design and construction of a recycling transfer facility, which is needed to offer curbside recycling. Asked about the debate over the economics and future of recycling in America, Assistant Public Works Director Jason Sorenson, said the industry is evolving but he sees recycling increasing over time.

The city’s Recreation Commission is asking for $392,500 to replace a worn-out, 1992 multi-purpose floor in Minot Municipal Auditorium, along with outdated light fixtures for which bulbs will soon become unavailable.

Recreation Director Scott Collins acknowledged the large amount of money put into the auditorium in recent years and indicated this expenditures should make the building good for years to come.

Minot Park District’s Roosevelt Park Zoo is requesting $3 million for a new cat complex. Zoo Director Becky Dewitz said bringing facilities up to modern zoo standards could become a factor in maintaining accreditation in the future. Without accreditation, the zoo could lose any animals that it doesn’t actually own, or about half its display, she said.

Ron Merritt, parks director, said the $3 million would be matched by $3 million from the park district and $3 million from fundraising to pay for the full scope of zoo improvements planned.

Dewitz added the cat complex is being built in a manner that will be resilient from any future flood damage. The 2011 flood inundated the zoo and forced the evacuation of animals.

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