After relatively small raises across the board during the apex of the COVID-19 pandemic, Grand Forks city workers are in line for a collective $1.15 million pay increase next year.

Mayor Brandon Bochenski’s preliminary budget would increase city salaries by 3.06% on average in 2022 with a $250-per-year minimum increase, which would bring the city’s total payroll to approximately $56.35 million, including insurance and other benefits. The budget he proposed – and City Council members approved – for the current year included uniform $1,000 raises for city workers or admission into a more generous pension plan for public safety employees, but not both.

“Accepting that $1,000 raise instead of the normal market raise was tough, and there was no promise that this year we were going to be able to get back to it,” Bochenski said. “And here we are, just a year later, and we’re able to do that.”

Those salary increases are part of a larger-scale spending plan Bochenski and other city administrators showed to City Council members on Tuesday. The mayor’s proposed $43.4 million general fund budget for 2022 would be 6.72% larger than the $40.6 million it is this year. Still to come are proposals for spending outside the general fund – large-scale infrastructure projects such as the multi-million-dollar upgrades at the city’s wastewater treatment plant – that can dwarf the day-to-day expenses encapsulated in the general fund.

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The property taxes that would pay for the bulk of that spending proposal would, at least theoretically, stay about the same for most Grand Forks homeowners. City finance staff estimate that a larger and more valuable tax base in 2022 would increase the value of a “mill” – the property tax building block that represents 1/1,000th of the value of a piece of land – by about 2.45% that year. Combining that with a slight reduction in that “mill rate” means the city’s estimated average tax bill would stay more or less flat even as about $343,000 worth of additional property tax revenue heads to Grand Forks City Hall.

But that increase won’t cover the entirety of the city’s $2.7 million projected spending increase, the bulk of which comes from the new salary plan and reinstituting some spending that Bochenski and his predecessor Mike Brown curtailed during the pandemic, like employee training and medium-scale purchases such as new police cruisers. The resulting $800,000 gap between Grand Forks’ budgeted revenue and expenses in the general fund would be bridged with money the city keeps in reserve, according to Finance Director Maureen Storstad.

“The ‘21 budget wasn’t a sustainable budget. That was really an anomaly,” she told the Herald. “We had cut out all capital, for instance, and we didn’t fund the salary plan. You can’t continue to do that with your employees, nor can you not put money into capital or your capital reserves.”

Bochenski’s salary plan would also offer health insurance to elected officials to attract more people to public service.

In related news Monday, council members:

  • Were briefed on a “grade separation” at the intersection of DeMers Avenue and North 42nd Street that would allow train traffic to avoid intersecting with car traffic there. The city listed that project as a civic priority earlier this year. Preliminary estimates put the price tag between $40 million and $60 million.
  • Were shown a proposal to redevelop a large tract of land south of 62nd Avenue South. Crary Development hopes to build a series of homes of varying sizes, commercial space, and, perhaps, a public park where city-required stormwater ponds would double as a civic amenity for ice skating and so on. Grand Forks’ current water and sewer system ends at 62nd, which means the city would need to build pump stations and other infrastructure there to serve the proposed development.
  • Took a preliminary look at a series of changes to the city’s alcohol policies that would, in total, allow some bars and restaurants to deliver alcohol to their customers, allow minors to work in bars and restaurants under certain conditions, and expand the type of businesses that can host charitable gaming.