In Mayor Steve Gander’s estimation, East Grand Forks leaders are pleased with the work the Metropolitan Planning Organization does and proud of the people who work there.

“Until you come with a decision we don’t like,” he joked.

This time, it’s a vote cast last week by the planning organization’s governing board that prompted the city to try to delay federal roadway funding. City Council members on Tuesday directed city administrators to ask the Minnesota Department of Transportation to help the city swap federal roadway money it's set to receive in 2022 with an equal appropriation in 2023 or beyond. It’s currently unclear whether that would, in effect, mean the city’s federal money goes to the state in exchange for a promise to get it back later on, or if the state would broker some type of deal between East Grand Forks and another city that would accomplish the same thing.

The planning organization coordinates infrastructure work and funding among federal, county and city governments, and its board members voted 6-0 on July 21 to table East Grand Forks’ request to amend a unified long-term transportation plan. That decision isn’t an outright “no,” but it nonetheless keeps the city from replacing a project that would install a $1.6 million roundabout at the intersection of Bygland Road and Rhinehart Drive in the city’s south end with a $2.2 million plan to rebuild 10th Street Northeast as it runs alongside an industrial park on the eastern edge of town. Both projects rely on $860,000 worth of federal “subtarget” subsidies that East Grand Forks is set to receive in 2022, and whichever is in the planning organization’s long-range plan would receive the money.

“The MPO Board is seeking much more information about how the roadway network in and around 10th Street would be further improved to provide transportation choices,” Earl Haugen, the planning organization’s executive director, wrote to Eastside leaders. Board members, he said, wanted to know how much the city thinks it would cost to work on streets that connect to 10th and where that money would come from, as well as a “timing plan” for that work.

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With the change to the MPO plan delayed but fiscal and logistical deadlines still looming for the city to get the ball rolling on a project on which to spend the federal money, the City Council’s decision aims to buy East Grand Forks time to study the 10th Street project and, ultimately, justify its inclusion in the MPO’s long-term transportation plan.

A long-running debate

But the elephant in the room, City Council member Brian Larson said, is the roundabout project.

“If we go down this rabbit hole of this industrial park update and it still doesn’t go anywhere,” he said, “we’re going to be kicking ourselves for not trying to bring this roundabout back to life and building something.”

The city tried to make a similar exchange with the three other northwest Minnesota cities that comprise a federal subtarget “group” -- Crookston, Thief River Falls and Bemidji -- but none was reportedly interested.

The attempt to effectively delay federal funding is the latest development in a monthslong back-and-forth over where that money should go. The long-range transportation plan currently calls for the roundabout, which would aim to “calm” traffic along Bygland Road, but some council members argued that the dilapidated section of 10th Street, which makes it tough for trucks and other heavy vehicles to maneuver to businesses there, should be a more urgent civic priority.

After months of discussion, council members voted to keep the roundabout at the top of the city’s list for federal funding, but Gander nullified that vote with a mayoral veto. Council members then failed to get enough votes to override his veto, then Gander broke a tie vote and put the street reconstruction project into the plan.

Council member Clarence Vetter, a consistent advocate for the roundabout project, said he doesn’t have a problem delaying the federal money.

“I just don’t know that 10th street’s going to rise to the top of the cream,” he said. “What do you do ... if the study comes back and says the roads are perfectly fine the way they are?”

“But you know they’re not,” Council President Mark Olstad said with a chuckle.

“From a transportation standpoint, yeah, they are,” Vetter said. “From a functional -- that, OK, they’re not draining or what have you, then, no, they’re not.”

Delaying the funding keeps the city’s options open, Gander said, and lets the city know whether the 10th street project passes muster with the MPO.

Disabilities, election judges, preliminary budget

In related news, East Grand Forks City Council members:

  • Heard from Mohamed Mohamed, the director of the East Grand Forks Islamic Center, who turned an exchange at a local Dairy Queen into an opportunity to advocate for people with disabilities on the near-anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. After he asked for help reading the ice cream shop’s drive-thru menu, Mohamed told council members an employee there asked him why he was driving if he was legally blind. Mohamed said he told her that people who are legally blind can still drive in Minnesota, and the attendant told him that wasn’t the case in the United States and told him to learn to read. Mohamed said he decided to use that as a teachable moment that could raise the profile of people with disabilities instead of a reason to get mad.
  • Agreed informally to hike city election judges’ pay by $1 per hour to $13 an hour for most and $14 an hour for head judges. East Grand Forks election judges last received a pay bump in 2012, when city leaders agreed to increase them from $9 and $9.50 for a regular judge and a head judge, respectively.
  • Took a preliminary look at the city’s general fund budget for 2022, which currently sports a tentative 5% increase in revenue from local property taxes -- which, if history is any judge, would mean a 2-3% hike in actual property taxes for residents -- and assumes that each large-scale purchase requested by city department heads makes it into the final budget that’s set to be approved in December. The budget, as it stands now, also includes set-in-stone 1.5% raises for city employees, most of whom are members of one of four unions that won those raises during contract negotiations with city administrators earlier this year. With those assumptions in place, the city’s $12.55 million worth of general fund spending would be about $481,000 short of its $12.07 million worth of general fund revenue.