By Lorrie Ham
Ongoing and possibly enhanced “cooperation” was the theme of a joint meeting between the Minnetrista and St. Bonifacius city councils on Thursday, Dec. 5.
Designed as an opportunity to discuss possible consolidation or a merger between the two cities, the consensus following the two-hour meeting in St. Boni was to build on existing partnerships between the two cities and continue to seek ways to work together for the benefit of both communities.
The two cities already have partnerships through a police contract, with service provided by Minnetrista, and a fire contract, with service provided by St. Boni.
The two cities also have a verbal “good neighbor policy” when it comes to occasionally sharing equipment or manpower in case of emergencies, said St. Boni Mayor Rick Weible.
Weible opened the meeting with a presentation on the spectrum of possible consolidation, from simply working together to a structural consolidation.
“I think we should start with why we are considering a merger,” former St. Boni Councilor Jason Zattler said, who was among the handful of residents in the audience. “What has changed since we looked at this before?”
Weible said he had been approached by a couple of members of the Minnetrista City Council about looking into a possible merger. Although he was against the merger when it came up in the 1990s, Weible said he thought it made sense to at least look at the possibilities again.
“The relationship between the two cities has improved,” Weible added, citing quarterly staff meetings between the two cities, common goals and similar values.
“We’re neighbors – we should work together,” St. Boni Councilor Joe Arwood said. “What is the benefit of merging? What are the ups and downs?”
Minnetrista City Administrator Mike Funk said that a merger was just one possibility to consider on the spectrum of choices.
“This is the first time these two councils have talked,” Weible said.
Based on research, cities consider merging for several reasons, Weible said, including budget constraints, efficiency, an improved quality of service and better economic development prospects. Challenges the two cities might face include loss of identity, turf fights, possible new debt and lack of community support, Weible added.
Weible also provided a partial list of considerations that would have to be dealt with, including city ordinance and code differences, staffing and pay, local government aid, debt service, existing contracts, utility billing, Capital Improvement Planning, streets and utility maintenance and emergency management.
The realities of a consolidation are that they rarely save money and that they can be complex and controversial, Weible said.
Minnetrista Councilor Bob Christians said the goals and objectives of merging two cities would be similar to merging two businesses – it needs to make sense. Christians said there were three things to consider.
“Will it improve services, will it reduce expenses, and will it provide opportunity for growth?” Christians said. “It’s complicated, but on the surface it makes sense.”
Economic development is a priority for both communities. St. Boni is looking for some downtown redevelopment, while Minnetrista is interested commercial development, especially along the Highway 7 corridor.
Both cities are considering submitting applications to the Minnesota Design Team. MDT assists communities develop a shared vision for a healthy future with three objectives in mind: an awareness of the role of design in development; preservation of a community’s identity and commitment to community participation.
If a city is selected, members of the MDT will spend a weekend in the community to provide input on city design concepts.
“We could combine efforts on a joint economic task force,” Arwood said. “Two cities with a united message – that’s going to say a lot.”
Arwood added that an economic development partnership could be established without talking about a merger.
St. Boni Planning Commission Chair Fred Keller felt that it would be “great” to join forces with Minnetrista and submit a joint application for the possibility of working with the MDT professionals.
Minnetrista Mayor Cheryl Fischer also liked that idea.
“The Minnesota Design Team application would be a good place to start,” she said.
Along with improving commercial endeavors in both communities, the two councils agreed that creating community identity was another common goal. Community surveys will be used to help determine what citizens want to see in their cities.
Minnetrista Councilor Anne Hunt felt that water would provide another “great” opportunity for the two cities to work together. Minnetrista has plans to build two new water treatment plants. Interconnects and opportunities to back up each other’s water supplies would be important, she added.
“The more we do together, the more the two cities will come together,” Minnetrista Councilor Mark Vanderlinde said, whose family history in the area dates back to when Minnetrista was a township. “Back then, St. Boni was the city.”
Funk shared some information his city received in a presentation from Buxton, a company which helps communities identify commercial possibilities by examining demographics in great detail. Cities can use that information to promote themselves and to recruit businesses, he added.
The councils discussed the possibility of looking at “eliminating city boundaries” for the purpose of recruiting businesses as a “community” instead of two separate cities.
With two common goals on the table, the councils decided to focus on those two issues first.
The two mayors, along with city staffers, will meet again on Dec. 18 and come up with specific discussion points for another meeting.
The next public meetings will be scheduled for sometime in January, possibly on a Saturday to accommodate interested residents.
The councils agreed that two meetings should be held – one in each city. The agenda will be the same, but the councils acknowledged that residents might be more likely to attend a meeting in their own city.
“Let’s keep an open mind,” Funk said. “Maybe we should say cooperation instead of consolidation. We’re just scratching the surface, so let’s look at the possibilities.”