After a brief political scuffle, East Grand Forks City Council members OK'd the purchase of several hundred pounds of refrigerant for the city’s indoor ice rinks.
Council members unanimously authorized amending the city’s 2019 budget to use money from its reserves to buy about 2,000 pounds of R-22 from Midwest Refrigeration for $25,180. City leaders could ultimately use money from other funds if they end up with enough wiggle room further into the fiscal year.
The refrigerant is being phased out by an Obama-era EPA mandate that is set to prohibit its manufacture or import in the United States after Jan. 1, 2020, and the market for R-22 is already fluctuating as cities and ice arenas stockpile the gas, which they use to cool indoor rinks. East Grand Forks has about 450 pounds on hand and has used up an estimated 1,500 pounds over the past six years.
City staff and a few council members characterized the $12.59 per pound the city would pay as a relatively low price that could turn the purchase into an investment if the city ever opted to sell part of its reserves at a profit.
“I love the purchase, I love the price, I don’t like the source of funds,” said Mayor Steve Gander, who characterized the purchase as a savvy one and praised city staff for “catching” it at a low price. “I do have a sense of duty to really, really look out for that reserve. As it would ever be depleted, of course, the back end of that means we’ve gotta raise taxes to replenish that. That’s really what we’re looking out for is future tax levy increases.”
That seemed to irk Fifth Ward council member Mark Olstad.
“Where was that attitude when we took $25,000 out of reserves to pay for the street two years ago?” he asked the mayor.
Olstad and City Administrator David Murphy clarified that Olstad was referring to a 2017 measure that ultimately meant the city paid about $25,000 for roadworks in a new subdivision and property owners there were on the hook for the rest. The original plan was to have property owners pay for the entirety of the project, but the city agreed to chip in the $25,000 after neighbors complained.
“It’s the same scenario. It’s the same situation, where you’re saying you don’t like where the funds come from,” Olstad said. “What if we needed those funds in that fund? Same situation.”
“It’s allocated for streets, and we used it for streets,” Gander said brusquely. “This is allocated for nothing. It’s general fund reserves for emergencies.”
Both quickly backed off and deferred to Second Ward council member Dale Helms, who said he understood Gander’s worry about where the money for the purchase would come from.
“But this particular thing ... it’s either you move on it or you don’t,” Helms said. “One or the other.”
The council unanimously approved the purchase, and the meeting ended shortly thereafter.