A proposal to offer city health insurance to Grand Forks City Council members, the mayor and a municipal judge has drawn some skepticism from some council members.
Mayor Brandon Bochenski’s 2022 budget proposal would offer a city health plan to those nine part-time civil servants, plus a $6,500 pay bump for the mayor and a $2,200 bump for the judge. If one of those nine opted for the family insurance plan, it would cost the city about $14,700 each year. A single plan costs it about $6,000. The city has budgeted about $45,000 for those health plans in 2022, but it’s unclear which elected official, if any, would take the city up on the offer.
Regardless, the plan is at least partly meant to attract more Grand Forks residents to elected office, according to Human Resources Director Tangee Bouvette.
“People who run for office, whether it be City Council or mayor or municipal judge, I would think it would be more enticing for people if there was some benefit,” Bouvette told the Herald. “So, say, an entrepreneur, right? It might be beneficial for someone who doesn’t currently carry health insurance to spend the time running for office if that’s an additional incentive. It might draw more people.”
But a few council members aren’t interested in a raise for the mayor or for the health insurance offer for themselves.
“If the municipal judge...needs health insurance, we should put him on,” Council President Dana Sande said at a council meeting on Monday, Aug. 2, noting that taking the health insurance would constitute a hefty raise to his city compensation. “But I don’t think the rest of the elected officials should have it.”
Council member Jeannie Mock said she is concerned about the amount budgeted for elected officials’ insurance.
“Especially given how many people could potentially be pulling from that,” she said.
Council members on Aug. 2 preliminarily approved Bochenski’s 2022 budget. They’re set to hold a vote to finalize it on Monday, Sept. 7.
A $216.7 million budget
But the health insurance proposal is only one part of a $216.7 million budget proposal that would be something like a return to pre-pandemic form at Grand Forks City Hall. City administrators put a halt to travel and large-scale construction and infrastructure spending during the early days of the pandemic, and clamped down on raises for city employees. Grand Forks’ 2021 spending plan, then, fell from $189.5 million to $178.4 million.
“We’re getting back on to where we need to be,” Finance Director Maureen Storstad said.
Some of the $38.1 million increase in spending in 2022’s budget proposal comes from resuming those large-scale infrastructure projects, which are set to total $76 million in 2022. And city staff are set to receive 3% salary increases on average in 2022 that will total about $1.15 million. In this year’s budget, which Grand Forks officials set near the height of the pandemic, city employees received $1,000 raises across the board or, in some cases, more generous pension plans, but not both.
City property taxes, though, are set to decrease ever so slightly. The rate at which the city taxes residents’ property is set to decrease by about 0.89%, but city staff predict that will be offset by a slightly larger and more valuable tax base. Ultimately, they predict they’ll receive about $352,000 in additional property taxes.
What separates the 2022 budget from a pre-pandemic one is the federal COVID-19 aid.
That aid totals about $28 million between the Trump-era Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Aid and the Biden-era American Rescue Plan Act, but some was allocated in this year’s budget, not the proposed 2022 one. Some of that money is still unallocated, but, in the 2022 budget, $543,000 of it would go toward roadwork, $6.83 million toward subsidizing the city’s plan to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant, $300,000 over this year and the next two to pay for the inter-organizational Mental Health Matters coalition to hire a program manager, and $1.3 million for fiber optic networking cables that would remain “dark” -- unused -- until the city can make use of them.