Watertown certifies 2014 budget, tax levy

The Watertown City Council approved a $1,942,343 tax levy for 2014 that was significantly lower than the preliminary levy that was set in September, but $45,000 higher than the proposed levy that was presented to the Council at the meeting.

In a series of budget workshops, the City Council had trimmed the $2.03 million preliminary levy down to $1,907,343, a reduction of roughly $120,000. However, after a lengthy debate, the city council decided to add $35,000 back into the budget as a mechanism to help fund the possible purchase of Madison Green Park or other park projects in 2014. Those negotiations have only recently begun to heat up, and a method for financing that possible purchase next year was not included in the originally-proposed budget.

The 2014 tax levy is about $100,000 higher than this year’s levy of $1.84 million. In addition to the money added to the budget for possible park expenditures, the fire budget was also increased by 8 percent, and there also was a 10 percent increase in the cost of policing services, which are provided by the Carver County Sheriff’s Office. Health insurance costs for city employees are also set to rise next year, and there are also expenses associated with the 2014 election that were not included the 2013 budget, because there wsa no election this year. The city’s total 2014 budget is $2,063,044.

The last-minute addition of $35,000 for park expenditures was the most contentious part of the budget discussions during the meeting, and as a result, the budget did not pass by a unanimous vote. Councilor Mike Walters, who would have agreed to a smaller $20,000 addition  — voted against the final budget.

Initially, Councilor Steve Wasbhurn favored adding $60,000 to the budget. Though he said he’s generally cautious about spending money, he said he’d like to see the city establish a stable and consistent mechanism to replenish the city’s park dedication fund, and also have funds available to possibly purchase Madison Green Park from Trinity Lutheran Church. The city currently leases the park, but the church is looking to sell the land to raise funds for its building projects.

Washburn said that although he’s heard many complaints that the city spends too much money on parks, he said he’s heard just as many comments that the city’s green space is what attracted new residents to town.

“We have had people come in and tell us, ‘the reason I moved to Watertown is because of the open spaces,’” Washburn said. “Part of the attraction to our community is our open space. Green space is something we have to say we value.”

Councilor Adam Pawelk, a former member of the city’s Park and Recreation Board, also favored the idea of establishing a funding mechanism to replenish the city’s park fund. He said there are long-awaited improvements to parks, such as the playground equipment at Highland Park, that the city has been putting off for years. He said that as a park board member, he was always told that the city council at that time was unwilling to commit money from the park fund to such projects because once the money was gone, it was just gone.

“I like the idea of establishing some kind of funding mechanism for our park fund,” he said.

Walters pointed out that there is more than $300,000 in the park fund already that he said has been sitting there for years, and that new home permit fees do help replenish that fund. The problem, he said, is that Watertown has had so few new homes in recent years.

Walters, who admitted that he would still be in favor of pursuing the possible purchase of half of Madison Green Park, opposed the addition of the $60,000 to the budget because he said there are other parks nearby that serve that neighborhood, such as the ice rink. He was also wary of another purchase the city made recently near Highland Park.

“I have a hard time just keeping buying park land when we just spent $150,000 on a totally useless half acre at 804 Hutchinson (Road), and will probably never be used by anybody,” he said. “From a financial standpoint and people using it, it was not the best expenditure. It’s hard to keep spending hundreds of thousands of dollars if we’re not going to be using these things.”

It’s unknown how much the city would have to spend for the entire Madison Green Park, or even half of it. However, it appears there has been some talk of a potential contract-for-deed agreement, which would allow the city to purchase the property over a number of years. That’s why Pawelk made a motion to slash Washburn’s original $60,000 proposal to just $20,000, a motion that was actually seconded by Walters. However, both Washburn and Mayor Charlotte Johnson voted against the amendment, and the 2-2 vote failed.

Washburn then amended his original proposal from 60,000 to 35,000 additional dollars, and the vote passed this time, with Walters still opposing.

The City Council also passed a separate Economic Development Authority levy in the amount of $41,386.


In other business:

• The city council approved a request to rezone a property  on Mill Avenue from Agriculture/Open Space to Medium Density Residential. The applicant has a purchase agreement to purchase the land from Immaculate Conception Church and construct a single-family home. The 0.95 acre property is already included in the 2030 Land Use Plan as medium density residential.

• The city council approved the purchase of several pieces of equipment to help with snow removal this winter.

The first is a plow for the city’s Kubota tractor that needs to be replaced, and will cost $3,625. The council also approved the purchase of a sprayer to pre-treat the streets with salt brine before snowstorms. According to public works staff, salt brine is more effective on snow and ice than what the city is currently using, and could eventually lead to a reduction in the ice and snow removal budget. The cost of the sprayer is $2,250.

• The city council approved a 3 percent cost of living adjustment for city staff, which was included in the 2014 budget. City staff last received a cost of living adjustment in January 2014, when they received a 1.7 percent increase.