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Council, dissatisfied with proposed budget, looks to whittle down the levy

Despite a significant increase in the size of the Faribault’s tax base, a 5% increase in state aid and largely stable health care costs, the city of Faribault’s current working budget would require a levy increase of nearly 8%. That’s doesn’t include personnel requests from the building maintenance and fire departments which could push the 2020 levy even higher.

City Administrator Tim Murray and council members agreed Tuesday that they’re not comfortable with the potential increase and are focused on cutting the budget line by line in hopes of getting a levy increase for next year to roughly 6% by the time added personnel costs are considered.

“Let’s take a percent and a half off of the levy, and see what we can do to add personal requests (within that),” said Councilor Royal Ross.

Murray said that the significant levy increases of the last few years have come largely as a result of increased personnel costs. After years of budget cuts and mostly stagnant wages following the 2008 financial crash, the city, prodded by public employee unions, has worked to play “catch-up” over the last few years to keep wages and benefits competitive.

Murray said he fears that costs are rising too much for a time of relative prosperity for Faribault, and that if the city doesn’t work to get costs under control now, it could be forced to make some very difficult decisions when times are leaner and funding sources decrease.

“We’re not on a sustainable path,” he warned the council.

Murray noted that health insurance costs for city employees have also been a major driver of the city’s spending increase. Last year, insurance costs rose more than 30%. This year, they’re rising by a much more modest but still significant amount of roughly 5%.

Mayor Kevin Voracek raised the possibility of reducing the city’s health insurance costs by introducing a more formal spousal cost penalty. Such a penalty, commonplace in the private sector, would see city employees pay higher premiums if they add their spouse to their health care plan.

City Human Resources Manager Kevin Bushard said that aside from retirees, very few city employees have their spouse on their coverage. However, Bushard said, that the city already has a form of a spousal penalty because when more people are added to a plan, the city covers less of the cost for each individual person.

Murray says he’s begun holding meetings with each city department in an attempt to find what can be reduced. However, Murray told the council because so much of the budget is tied up in personnel costs, many negotiated with unions, there’s limited opportunity to reduce spending unless it cuts personnel.

“There’s a finite number of line items that we can tweak,” Murray said.

City Engineer Mark DuChene touted the possibility of contracting out for the city’s seal coating program as one example of a potential efficiency. DuChene said that the city only uses the expensive equipment needed for seal coating during a few weeks of the year.

That would mean work could be done by contractors who do the job as efficiently and do everything they can to get the most use out of their equipment.

The council has until month’s end to approve a preliminary levy. That’s used to calculate estimated 2020 taxes, which are sent to property owners by the county in mid November. The final levy, which can’t be increased from the preliminary figure, doesn’t need to be approved until late December.

Blues band PK Mayo kicks off Shattuck's Acoustic Roots Series

Fall is about more than back-to-school at Shattuck-St. Mary’s with a new season of the school’s annual Acoustic Roots Series kicking off this month.

Shattuck invited three music acts to perform in the historic Newhall Auditorium on three separate occasions this year, and the first on deck is blues group PK Mayo at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12.

Half acoustic and half electric, PK Mayo’s performance at Shattuck will include lead singer and guitarist Paul “Mayo” Mayasich with a bass player, drummer and a Hammond organist.

Dick Kettering, coordinator for the Acoustic Roots Performing Arts Series, said a lot of blues groups are a power trio with a guitar, bass and drums, but “you add the Hammond into the mix and it’s just a nice, full sound.”

Primarily based out of the Twin Cities, PK Mayo has toured the United States and Europe. After realizing he didn’t like hotel rooms as much as his own bed, Mayasich said his band now wants to tour “on a more limited structure.”

The band has released five albums under various names, all containing the name Mayasich. But to shorten the name to “roll off the tongue,” the group is in the process of re-branding as PK Mayo. The band’s first album under this name, a live record, will be sold at the Shattuck-St. Mary’s performance.

Mayasich was voted the Minnesota Blues Hall of Fame Best Performer of the Year for 2016 and has been inducted into the Minnesota Rock and Country Hall of Fame as well. As another crowning achievement, his band worked with blues and soul vocalist Big John Dickerson to write “Arms of the Blues,” which won the Minnesota Music Award for Best Recording of an Original Song in 2000.

While he’s not a genre-specific artist, Mayasich said many recognize his format as Americana, roots and blues with elements of older country music from the 1940s and 1950s. It doesn’t matter to him, “as long as it’s good.”

“All I’ve heard [from others] is there’s no real boundaries or restrictions on where I’ve decided to go on things,” said Mayasich. “If I feel like playing something, I play it.”

Mayasich grew up exposed to music that never played on the radio, thanks to his older siblings. His twin sisters, classical violinists, inspired his interest in the slide guitar since both instruments work in the parameters of being lyrical and melodic. Mayasich’s older brothers also inspired his taste in music; they came home from college with stacks of “under the radar” albums by obscure blues musicians, and he found these lesser-known artists intriguing.

“They followed their own path, and I encourage people to do that,” said Mayasich. “Younger players I tell to find their tone and their song … No one else possesses your style but you. Identification is much more important to me than how fast you play or how many notes you know. Individuality sets you apart.”

Commission pressed to OK 3rd St. building demo

With the number of days before Minnesota’s short construction season ends dwindling, the Faribault City Council on Tuesday pressed a city commission into action.

Last month, the Heritage Preservation Commission tabled a request from the council to approve demolition of an historic downtown building at 27 Third St. NW the city had planned to convert to parking, wanting to see a final report on costs to repair the dilapidated structure.

Last December, the city purchased that building and its neighbor at 225 First Ave. NW for $238,930. The city intended to demolish the buildings to make way for a new public parking, the Heritage Preservation Commission in February objected to the city’s proposal to allow the Third Street building to be razed, arguing that it holds significant historical value. Councilors toured the building and noted massive structural deficiencies including a 25-foot hole in the roof.

In hopes of convincing the Heritage Preservation Commission to support demolition of the building, the Council commissioned a report from architectural and engineering firm ISG to determine the state of the building. According to ISG’s preliminary report, it would cost nearly $3 million to bring the building back to usable, safe condition.

While HPC members said they wanted to wait to see ISG’s final report, they made it clear they see no path forward for restoration of the building.

Although HPC members had effectively given up on hopes of restoring the Third Street building, the Commission’s decision to table the issue meant the HPC was not planning on revisiting its decision until its next regularly scheduled meeting Sept. 16. That wasn’t good enough for City Administrator Tim Murray.

Murray warned the council that the number of potential construction days left in 2019 are dwindling and said he’s worried that the building poses an increasing public safety risk the longer it stays up.

At Murray’s urging, Vohs said he’d try to call a special HPC meeting on Monday. Such a meeting would give the HPC the opportunity to approve the building demolition for the Third Street building before the council meeting the following day.

Vohs said it’s highly unlikely that the HPC would agree to approve demolition of the First Street building. He reiterated the general view of the HPC that adhering to the proper process is more important than the final outcome when it comes to demonstrating that Faribault is committed to preserving its historic downtown area.

Mayor Kevin Voracek and Councilor Peter van Sluis also encouraged the council to consider saving the First Avenue building. Noting that the building remains structurally sound, they suggested that the city could preserve it and rent it out to businesses and organizations.

“I think it would be a cool place to keep for a nonprofit or a makerspace or something like that,” said van Sluis.

Speaking in favor of preserving the First Avenue building, Vohs noted that historic preservation tax credits help downtown property owners fund millions of dollars in preservation and upgrades. He warned the council that not doing everything it can to avoid tearing down historic buildings could lead the city’s bid to expand its historic district to fail, potentially costing downtown businesses millions in tax credits to help maintain and upgrade buildings.

“They’re in the historic district and the council wants to tear them down but at the same time we have a proposal in to SHPO (the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office) to expand the downtown historic district,” Vohs pointed out. “So what SHPO thinks about us and how we handle our historic buildings is very significant.”

That argument resonated with Councilor Janna Viscomi. Previously supportive of demolishing both buildings, Viscomi noted the importance of bringing the Historic Preservation Committee on board. However, she wasn’t convinced that the building should stay, adding that she wasn’t comfortable with having the city act as landlord in this case.

“I’m sure we could find some sort of use for (the building), but I don’t know what that use is,” she said.

City Engineer Mark DuChene said that the city hasn’t evaluated the potential cost of demolishing only the 3rd Ave building. DuChene added that the city needs to first accept the bid to demolish both buildings and then draft a change order if it wishes to preserve the 1st Street building.

DuChene and Councilor Jonathan Wood, who owns a construction business, noted that because extra precautions would have to be taken to protect the First Avenue building from being damaged by the demolition of the 3rd Street building, the price of demolishing the Third Street building may actually be higher than the price of demolishing both.

Voracek and Councilor Royal Ross suggested that the lot be used as a green space after demolition is complete, rather than a parking lot. They noted that if Faribault’s Downtown Master Plan is implemented successfully, more residents would live downtown. Thus, the need for green space downtown might become more significant over time and the need for parking less significant.

Faribault Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Director Nort Johnson urged the Council to stick with the original plan to build a parking lot on the site. Johnson pointed out that the city made the decision to buy the property after two-year a study by the Parking Commission identified a dire need for more downtown parking.

“We have a shortage of downtown parking at critical times,” Johnson noted. “Anything you put back into development is going to do just the opposite of remedying that problem.”

While the Council will have to decide almost immediately if it wants to demolish the First Avenue building this year, it won’t have to decide right away how to use the space. If demolished, the vacant lot will sit covered with gravel over the winter while the ground settles.

mikerandleman / By MIKE RANDLEMAN 

Class A No. 5 WEM came back to win at Class AA No. 6 Belle Plaine in five sets Tuesday. (Mike Randleman/Faribault Daily News)