Minot City Council Candidates Questionnaire
Minot City Council
Q: What are your budget priorities and what actions do you believe the council needs to consider to hold taxes down? Specifically, could you support shifting more infrastructure costs to special assessments?
Olson: My budget priorities are to provide quality municipal services to the residents of Minot at an affordable cost. The City Council needs to work with city staff to determine which projects are mandatory and which are optional or could be held for another year or two. Special assessments are a two-edged sword. They are a cost to residents who benefit from improvements, but are often quite expensive, so residents oppose the fees. Although special assessment districts are created, it is not uncommon for residents to argue that they don’t see a benefit to the improvement, so therefore, should not be included in the district. I know that other cities in North Dakota rely more heavily on special assessments, so it may be a better option than increased property taxes that are spread across the city.
Shomento: We must review every potential project to see if we can afford it nor or will we be able to postpone it. Bonding for projects simply means borrowing and I’m not in favor of that. We will most likely have to do more with special assessments.
Pitner: If elected I believe we should be very cautious when thinking of possibly implementing any tax hikes, whether they be property or sales tax. I think implementing any tax hikes should be a last resort and we should look to what we have inhouse as far as costs and see what dollars in our budget can be reallocated first. I do think utilizing more special assessments would be a possible way to help ease any additional tax burden on residents if it were to come to that.
Podrygula: We need to balance income with expenses, and be realistic about what we expect. For too many years, city leaders have pretended everything would be fine if we just kept property taxes low. As the population and land area of the city have expanded, demand for city services has increased. In the 10 years prior to 2017, consumer prices rose an average of 2 percent a year, while the city property tax went up only 1 percent a year; eventually, this catches up with you.
We ended up relying too much on the sales tax, and now as the economy has slowed, and sales tax revenues have fallen we are in a bit of a bind. We also have not kept pace with technology and modern personnel management practices, so our city staff have not really had the tools to work more effectively and efficiently.
I’m not keen on shifting more infrastructure costs to special assessments, but would be willing to consider it if it were part of a comprehensive infrastructure improvement plan. Infrastructure benefits the whole community, not just the particular neighborhood it is built in.
Jantzer: My budget priorities are: 1. maintain essential city services, i.e. police and fire departments, water and sewer, sanitation/garbage and landfill, airport, streets and snow removal. 2. We must adequately compensate our city employees. 3. Flood protection for all our citizens must be completed as soon as possible, including the remaining acquisition of properties and East Minot phases. 4. NAWS must be completed, now that the court has lifted the construction ban. 5. Infrastructure for services and quality of life has to be maintained, e.g. library and auditorium. Minot underutilizes special assessments compared to other municipalities, so we need to look at where we can best increase use of them in a fair manner. Programs like our Sewer Maintenance Fund allow projects to be done when needed without assessing a specific district for the full cost. A mixture of that approach and some additional use of special assessments is warranted, especially for extension of infrastructure.
Montez: I think we need to look at having a third party audit our budget. We should consider making a simpler budget overview available to the public. We could also suggest adding cuts to the budget to the ballot and give the voters a chance to voice what areas to be cut. We should look at areas that no longer produce results to make sure we continue to fund pertinent areas and possibly reduce the budget. Most importantly we need make sure that necessary services such as utilities, roads and emergency services are funded and remaining efficient. As far as special assessments, that’s something I’d be more comfortable looking at on a case by case basis.
Q: Are there areas where you feel the city can create greater efficiencies to improve or maintain service while cutting costs?
Olson: I know it is difficult for many residents to believe, but last year’s budget was very lean and efficiencies were implemented. With that said, I fully understand that there is not an appetite for property tax increases again this year, so the City has to become more creative and more collaborative. When IEDC visited Minot, they suggested combining Parks and Recreation. I believe this is worth looking into, but without information to compare, I cannot make a recommendation at this time. At this time, I am not aware of any redundancy in services, but obviously if there are some, they should be examined and eliminated.
Shomento: We charge private and our of town garbage collectors to use our city garbage dump. I think we need to look at increasing those charges, perhaps triple.
Pitner: I think the city needs to be willing to rely a little more on the private sector. I think we need to explore the idea of subcontracting out some of the more tedious tasks that would possibly allow the city to cut some of their operating/labor expenses.
Pdorygula: The first thing the city can do to cut costs is to stop throwing away money.
The best examples that come to mind are: the fiasco with the parking ramps, where we were sold a bill of goods by the developer; Home Sweet Home, where we made a deal with the state without figuring out how much buying and moving the building might cost; and not charging appropriately for sanitation services.
Since the problems with the parking ramps and Home Sweet Home are so obvious, let me focus on sanitation services, which are not as well known.
With the changeover to automated trash collection, the city discovered that it had been picking up garbage (particularly for small apartment complexes) without charging the owners, something which lost us about ™ million dollars a year in revenue. The fact that we didn’t know this was happening shows we need better monitoring of all our services and their associated costs.
Just as bad, we were letting private haulers get away with not paying their landfill bills on time. In December 2017 we learned that one hauler was over $180,000 behind, and often paid two months late. Although they charged their customers 1.5 percent interest a month, we never charged them any interest (which would have come to over $2,300 in one month alone) or late fees; in contrast, all other North Dakota cities are much more aggressive in payment policies. When I found out what was happening, I immediately brought this to the attention of the Council and we have since passed an ordinance requiring payment within 30 days and charging interest on any overdue accounts; landfill privileges are suspended if a bill is two months late (and full payment is required before reinstatement). Basic city services need to be run like a business (e.g., making sure bills are paid on time).
Jantzer: I think the combining of the Recreation Department and Park District should be actively pursued to see what savings can be gained from combining them. Continuing to automate some of the city jobs to gain efficiency needs to be a constant pursuit. We need to benefit from the advances in communication and technology connecting formerly ‘dumb’ devices (e.g. as was done with water meters) to the Internet. There Partnering or coop buying activity with other organizations like the MPS District or County to save money on purchases of equipment and supplies is an opportunity. The City should look at doing centralized purchasing. The City needs to stop doing things that aren’t mandated or which don’t yield much value.
Montez: I feel like there is always room for improvement and that council members should challenge department heads to improve efficiency within their respective areas and look at areas where they can reduce their budgeting needs by at least 2 percent. We have department heads for a reason and if the council is solely working towards it, well, that in and of itself seems inefficient.
Q: Would you support an increase in the city sales tax beyond the current 2 percent?
Olson: I would consider a half cent increase to city sales tax as a method to fund flood protection and NAWS. I completely understand that no one wants a tax increase in any form, but we are faced with the reality of funding NAWS and the City’s share of flood protection. I believe that this ultimately will be decision left to the voters, who will need to determine if sales tax is the best way to fund these projects.
Shomento: Yes, I would to help pay for our flood protection project which as it sits now will take the city over 40 years to repay.
Pitner: Like I’ve stated prior, this needs to be a last resort option. How can we as a city say we want to invest in our downtown infrastructure, encourage investment from small business owners and then pull the rug out from under then by implanting a higher sales tax. The barriers to entry for business owners are already too high in Minot, we need to encourage growth and make this a conducive environment not only for business owners but consumers.
Podrygula: To help deal with our challenging financial situation, I would support a slight increase in the city sales tax. The logical place to start would be to redirect the one half cent county sales tax toward flood protection (once the jail/courthouse improvements are paid off).
Overall, we need to look at a better balance of property tax, sales tax, and fees. Part of the reason we are having financial issues is that we became too dependent on the sales tax; consequently, increasing it a whole lot more seems a bit odd.
Jantzer: I do not believe that increasing the city sales tax much beyond the current rate will be successful, and I would not vote to do so at this time. If we are the highest sales tax city in the state by say, two percent, buyers who aren’t captive here will bypass us for Bismarck, online shopping, or going elsewhere. Revenue increases may be less than expected or minimal. If we are going to support local businesses, jacking up the sales tax is the wrong way to go. I would support repurposing the current county one half penny to flood protection when it sunsets about 2022, thus keeping the overall tax rate the same as it is now. The USACE may start a Corps Project on the Maple Street Diversion, reducing Minot’s costs. The Supreme Court may decide online sales are taxable by the states, which will help ND, and indirectly Minot. Finally, a better way to finance flood protection is the approach I have worked on with local legislators for the 2019 session. Using a portion of the Legacy Fund as a revolving loan fund through the Bank of ND at below market interest rates would save Minot tens of millions of dollars in interest alone. It would allow us to accelerate completion of the project, relieving our citizens of high cost flood insurance. The cloud of uncertainty would be lifted sooner, allowing investment and progress.
Montez: Absolutely not. I may have been coerced on this before but after looking at the numbers and hearing the opinions of multiple citizens throughout the city I firmly believe that increasing sales tax would cause a much larger problem. We should be looking at ways to reduce taxes and make Minot more competitive in all markets.
Q: How do you feel the city should handle tax exemptions, such as through the Renaissance Zone or MAGIC Fund, to encourage development or new businesses?
Olson: I am anxious to see the IEDC document at the end of June, because in their initial recommendations, they encouraged us to look into tax exemptions to stimulate economic growth. I believe that the Trinity buildings would be an example of a situation where the City could offer tax exemptions for new businesses that would consider buying and refashioning these properties. I am fully aware that there are citizens who would disagree with this concept, but I believe it is an option that needs consideration. My experience as an alderman has shown me that projects must be vetted for pros and cons. A tax exemption in one situation does not mean that a tax exemption in another situation is warranted.
Shomento: I think we need to eliminate the Renaissance Zone. We should not fund anything additional to the Magic Fund. In three years the Magic Fund has brought in one new business.
Pietner: I feel having these types of programs are pivotal in providing an environment that is conducive to business growth in the community. We need to do as much as we can to encourage investment from businesses and I would love to see these programs if not grown then in the very least utilized to their full potential.
Podrygula: Realistically, exempting one property from a tax means all other properties end up paying more. I feel this is justified, however, if the exemption is targeted to significantly improve the value of a property (as in the case of the Renaissance Zone), or to encourage business growth and development (as part of a package of MAGIC Fund benefits, to attract new businesses or help current ones grow). Helping the owners make a property more valuable ultimately results in more tax revenue and a better community.
Jantzer: Properly used tax incentives can successfully stimulate development activity by making a project financially feasible for a developer. While the taxing entity gives up collecting the tax for a period of five years, once on the tax rolls, the property is likely to produce tax revenue for decades. The Renaissance Zone does allow the City to approve such exemptions, and I have voted in favor of those projects, based on a long-term financial view. In some cases the project turned a blighted building into an attractive, up to date property. The MAGIC Fund is not granting tax exemptions, but rather financial incentives, e.g. an interest buy downs, loans, or a grant based on the number of jobs produced, or a less than market value deal on land. It is common practice in economic development and recruiting of businesses to provide these kinds of inducements. Again, when used wisely, and in the case of loans and grants, with adequate repayment and claw back provisions, they can be a good tool. Both the Renaissance Zone and the MAGIC Fund have processes in place for due diligence, with multi-layered approvals, and transparency. There is no way to guarantee 100 percent success, and once companies fulfill their agreements, having provided the jobs as required, it is unfair to fault them if they don’t continue forever.
Montez: While I believe that temporary tax exemptions help promote new business, we need to take into account the types of businesses we should be promoting. Are we keeping up with purchasing trends? Are we promoting businesses with stronger sustainable in areas with boutiques and specialty shops so that they can thrive and create jobs. I think a lot of downtown businesses should consider their hours of operation to better serve customers who work 9-5 and would like to shop downtown. I also would like to discuss with local businesses benefitting from both the Renaissance Zone and the parking ramps the possibility of using 1 percent or .5 percent of their profits on making use of these structures free to citizens, if it will help these businesses.
Q; What are your thoughts on breed-specific legislation and vicious dog ordinances?
Olson: Breed Specific legislation is a topic of debate locally and around the nation. Pet owners view their pets as part of the family, so when the right to keep a member of their family within their home is jeopardized, they become frustrated. During the course of the Animal Ad Hoc Committee meetings, as well as the City Council meetings, citizens on both sides of the debate shared personal testimony along with data that supported their argument. As an Aldermen, I had to listen to both sides of the debate and cast a vote that would best fit the majority of citizens in Minot. This was a difficult task, because I can relate to pet owners, but I can also empathize with victims of dog attacks. I believe, not only on this vote, but in general, that a duty of the City Council is to ensure public safety. Knowing that, I could not, in good conscience, vote to allow certain breeds of dogs in our community that have a track record of vicious, sometimes fatal attacks.
The City of Minot currently has a Vicious Dog ordinance, but I know there is a desire to review and possibly update the ordinance. Without knowing what changes may be recommended, I cannot offer an opinion related to the updates. I support the intent of our current ordinance, because data shows that any dog of any breed can attack, so if and when that occurs, our police department must have the authority to deal with that particular animal.
Shomento: I’m in favor of pet ordinances. There is a difference between city and country living in this state.
Pitner: I am a dog person and it is hard for me to think any specific breed should be restricted. I do believe there can be certain caveats that can be implemented to ensure we have ‘responsible’ dog owners. It only takes one to ruin it for everyone else and a lot more discussion has to be had on this topic.
Podrygula: It seems that the best long-term solution is to develop a dangerous animal ordinance, and we are currently in the process of drafting one (based on Fargo’s model).
When it comes to dogs, research suggests animals that are well-socialized, treated in a caring and humane manner, taught basic obedience and behavior control, and allowed plenty of contact with humans and other dogs are the critical factors in controlling aggressive behavior. The owner has more of an influence than the breed of the dog. Unfortunately, some dog owners leave their pets alone, tied up, for long periods of time, and do not give them the kind of attention, interaction, discipline/training, and care that they need.
Until we develop confidence that this more in-depth approach works, I believe that some breed-specific legislation is justified. In particular, although ‘pit bulls’ do not bite/attack more frequently than several other breeds of dogs, the injuries they inflict tend to be much more severe, and the fatalities they cause are several times greater than those of any other breed. Until we have some long-term experience with the model experts suggest, some breed-specific restrictions make sense.
Jantzer: This topic is highly divisive and emotional on both sides. I have received more correspondence on this than any other issue in my ten years on the council by far. Minot is on a path to enact a ‘vicious or dangerous animal’ ordinance, and once we have that in place with enforcement working adequately, I am willing to consider further changes. We need to get more dogs licensed; many are not, and it creates an enforcement challenge. I believe public safety is paramount. Dog owners need to be responsible. For the types of large dogs that are known to cause major harm or fatalities when they attack, there should be higher standards for them to be allowed in the city, e.g. they and their owners should have to pass a meaningful training and temperament test protocol, and they should be micro-chipped, so that ownership can be determined and responsibility can be enforced.
Montez: I am against breed-specific legislation. There is no evidence to support that one breed is more aggressive than another. While pit-bulls do make up a large percentage of dog attacks, they are the most common breed of dog in the U.S. I think the most sensible course of action is holding owners responsible for their pets and making sure that the ordinances that keep animals in control are enforced. We have to remember that these are animals and any dog can become vicious if not properly cared for and trained.
Q; Do you have concerns about employee turnover? If so, how do you feel the city should address it?
Olson: Yes, I have a great deal of concern related to employee turnover. Turnover within our city departments effects every citizen in Minot. As I mentioned in an earlier question, I believe that a duty of the City Council is to ensure public safety. When the City of Minot has inexperienced staff working in the areas of fire, police, public works and engineering, public safety is impacted. The citizens expect and deserve quality services from city staff. Employee turnover reaches into everyone’s wallet because training, particularly in the areas of public safety, costs thousands of dollars. Taxpayer dollars walk out the door with staff each and every time they leave for better pay and benefits somewhere else. The City’s human resource staff are in a continual cycle of posting positions, interviewing and hiring. This takes away from time that could be spent with advanced training.
Last fall, the City Council was tasked to face financial shortcomings, continue quality municipal services and keep property tax increases at a manageable rate. One of the ways to trim tax increases was to delay employee pay increases for six months. I disagreed with this approach at the time and hold fast to my belief today. In order to ensure quality services, we must employ quality staff. To keep quality staff we must compensate them, through pay and benefits, that is at the same level as other municipal, county or state employees in the area. Without fair compensation, we will continue the vicious cycle of employee turnover.
Shomento: This is a huge concern for the city. We cannot postpone raises. We need to pay our city employees for their merit and at market pace.
Pitner: This is a difficult issue to address without being familiar with the day to day activities of these high-turnover departments. But to reiterate a previous point perhaps the city needs to look at out-sourcing some of these responsibilities to private businesses in the community. Let the private sector compete and help keep costs down for the city.
Podrygula: I have tremendous concerns about employee turnover.
Our 400+ city employees are our greatest resource, but I don’t feel we provide them adequate leadership, a sense of vision, enough training, and the kinds of benefits they deserve, to retain an experienced, highly-trained, and well-motivated workforce.
While basic salaries are comparable to those in other cities (and the private sector), the biggest problem is with benefits. For example, a Minot police officer earns just about what a Ward County sheriff’s deputy does, yet he/she could end up taking home $6,712 less a year (because the county provides fully-paid family health insurance and the city doesn’t).
An annual turnover rate of nearly 15 percent is just unacceptable, particularly in the public safety field (where, last year, replacing 24 people cost the city nearly $1.8 million). Our turnover rate is five times worse than Bismarck’s, so it’s obvious we can do better.
Jantzer: Every organization has turnover. City employee turnover has increased during the past year, and we recently received information on the combination of salary and benefit issues that are making Minot a little less competitive in recruiting and retention than we need to be. Some departments are more affected than others. Much of the differences are on the benefits, I.e. pension and health insurance. I am confident the Council will work these issues, focusing on where the gaps are, and addressing them, in the development of the 2019 Budget.
Montez: Yes, not only does turnover create higher costs for the city but can also have non-financial detrimental effects. We need to make sure that all city employees are receiving a fair and reasonable wage based on current market data. Not only that, but we need to make sure that they are being recognized for excellent work. When you take care of an employee, that employee cares for their work.
Q: Should the city take into account the past performance of contractors when awarding project bids? If so, what weight should it have in the process?
Olson: Yes, the city should take into account the past performance of contractors when warding bids. This idea goes back to the residents of Minot expecting and deserving quality municipal services at an affordable cost. Contractors who are not able to fulfill the demands of a specific project cause a variety of problems. Sadly, some contractors have issues on every project they are awarded. Conversely, many contractor’s complete projects exactly the way they should be completed. City of Minot staff and the City Council should be able to consider this when awarding a bid. I don’t have a recommendation on the amount of weight this carries, but I would be willing to help create a rubric or matrix that would evaluate this issue.
Shomento: The city should always take into account these factors when awarding contracts. BUT be smart. We should never do anything with Cypress or their principals again. If people are concerned about Keller Paving, they need to investigate the facts. For example: why was the project late (subcontractor’s work, weather, or did they take 2 weeks off the project?) Are the contractors professional to work with? Keller Paving has saved this town tons of money by lower bids and have gotten the jobs done.
Pitner: In the case in which you speak, Keller Paving may have experienced delays in the downtown infrastructure project and that needs to be something that the city needs to take very seriously and needs to make sure everything is done so this does not happen, but in any construction field delays happen and unforeseen hurdles come up. I do believe Keller Paving also was one of the local contractors that came on board to help tie up the parking garage fiasco and I also believe Keller Paving has been an asset to the city when we have been faced with exuberant amounts of snow that the city could not handle moving by themselves. It is important that contractors are held accountable and adhere as closely as possible to deadlines. We cannot talk out of both sides of our mouths and should not hold companies to a double standard.
Podrygula: The city clearly needs improvement in its procurement and contracting practices, to be sure that we are getting the best quality, at the lowest price. Legally, we are required to accept the ‘lowest and best’ bid; too often, we have been focused on the former, and not paid enough attention to the latter.
We have seen too many projects experience significant delays (e.g., the expansion of 36th Avenue at North Broadway, up by SRT) and complications (e.g., the current paving problems on East Burdick). The problems with the construction of the two downtown parking ramps (e.g., bids that were unrealistically low, failure to pay subcontractors, incomplete work, etc.) are the most troubling example. The city needs to do a much better job of staying on top of things.
As part of improving practices in this area, we definitely need to take into account the past performance of contractors when awarding bids. The city needs to develop a clear, objective, and unbiased set of criteria by which to award contracts. Without looking at all of the factors that should be considered (e.g., probably a preference for local businesses), it would be premature to give this one factor a specific weight at the present time.
Many cities our size have a contracting officer a big part of whose job it is to monitor performance and we should consider adding such a position. This is one way in which spending a bit more money improving technology is another one should result in greater efficiency and savings in the long run.
Jantzer: It is common sense to learn from past experience. Applied to the question of contractors, this means that if a contractor consistently has performance issues, and it isn’t a case of circumstances on a particular job that couldn’t be controlled, the issue has to be brought to the attention of the contractor. The management of the company needs to do a better job. The time to have this conversation is not when a low bid has been submitted by the contractor, but outside of a bid process. It may be that the mere threat of exclusion from future bids, deliberately delivered and backed by supporting data, is enough to cause improvement. The contractor needs to know they can be disqualified from bidding if they consistently fail to perform. The process for tracking performance and accumulating objective data needs to be complete. We need to further develop it and then utilize it fairly. The weighting should be proportional to the costs to the City (both monetary and soft costs of inconvenience to citizens) if the contractor underperforms. For some projects it might be a low single digit percentage, and in other cases double or triple that amount.
Montez: Yes, I feel that the citizens will no longer tolerate bad deals made by elected officials. We need to learn from past mistakes and take into
consideration the deals we make in the future and make sure that stipulations are put into writing beforehand so that we have some legal standing if things go wrong.
Q: Does the city do a good job of planning for future growth? What room do you see for improvements?
Olson: I can only answer this question based on my experience over the past 8 years. During the height of the boom, the City of Minot planning department worked with an out of state organization that helped develop our future use plan and map. Numerous meetings and hundreds of hours were put into the development of the plan. As in many ases, there were people who were on board with this plan and those who were not. As the plan has been put into practice, changes have been made to accommodate special circumstances.
Planning for the future is important, but there has to be a level of flexibility in any plan. No one could have planned for a devastating flood and an oil boom happening at the same time. Communication and collaboration among stakeholders helps create a community for the present and for the future.
Shomento: I do not think that the city can predict what sellers will sell or what developers will buy. I think we must react to new growth and let the private sector do the investing.
Pitner: In regards to growth as far as housing development, the city already has a large number of developed lots in regards to infrastructure that remain vacant. Therefore, I believe the city has to do a better job of encouraging businesses and developers to come into and invest into our community and not have ridiculously high barriers to entry.
Podrygula: Minot needs to do a much better job of planning for the future, especially for the growth we all hope for.
The city is the only organization I have ever been involved with that does not have an organized planning process. Sure, an individual department may have a list of projects or objectives, but I really don’t see an overall set of goals, mission statement, or ‘vision.’ If you don’t know where you want to go, it’s hard to get there.
This is starting to change, as our new city manager, Tom Barry, has set up budget and planning retreats for both the Council and city department heads. We’re finally starting to talk about the ‘big picture,’ but much more is needed, particularly in terms of coordinating our efforts with other branches of government (e.g., the city can’t be going in one direction and, say, the park board, in another). The city has been without a planning director for over five months, and we need to accelerate our search process. It may also be time to again partner with the Chamber of Commerce, for a community-wide visioning process (as occurred in 1999).
Jantzer: The City does a lot of work attempting to plan for future growth, but unfortunately doesn’t have a crystal ball, and so things don’t always turn out as expected. Look at recent history: planning done before and during the energy boom and the flood for continued fast growth didn’t turn out to be reality in many respects. I think we need to be tougher on managing.