East Grand Forks leaders on Tuesday agreed, barely, to ramp up the fees residents pay to maintain the city’s trail systems along the Greenway.
Council members voted 3-3 to hike the monthly Greenway fees in property owners' water bills by $1 in 2022 and a further 5% each year for the following 10, a move that would ultimately raise those fees to $3.26 per month in 2032. Voting against the plan were Clarence Vetter, Dale Helms and Tim Johnson. Voting in favor were Brian Larson, Tim Riopelle and Council President Mark Olstad.
Mayor Steve Gander voted “yes” on the plan, which broke the tie. Council member Marc DeMers was absent from the meeting.
City staff said the $1 property owners currently pay each month isn’t enough to cover the estimated cost to repave the 10.93 miles of trail the city maintains along the Greenway. At the current rate, the city wouldn’t garner enough money via the fees to pay for those overlays until 2050, Parks and Recreation Superintendent Reid Huttunen wrote to council members in a July 27 memo. Trails should be overlaid every 10 or 15 years, he said.
Vetter claimed the higher Greenway fee, plus a $9-a-month hike to residents’ utility bills that council members approved in June, would mean a combined 7.3% revenue increase for the city, whose leaders typically try to keep property tax hikes -- which are a separate source of East Grand Forks’ revenue -- below 5%.
“Telling our citizens we're going to hold the budget to 5% and then on the backside we increase these fees, I’m not in favor of that,” Vetter said.
'Easier and cleaner' rules
Also in the works is a proposal to codify city rules for the Greenway itself and make it a misdemeanor to violate them.
Immediately before they voted to increase the park’s maintenance fees, council members voted 5-1 to amend city code to specify the hours during which people can use the Greenway, where they can drive vehicles along it, and the penalties for violating either.
It’s the first of two votes necessary for those changes to take effect. Johnson, who also argued against the fee increase, was the single “no” vote.
“We want more money from them but we’re restricting the use of it,” Johnson said. He tried to have the hours of operation removed from the proposal, but that effort died when no other council member seconded Johnson’s motion to do so.
As it stands, East Grand Forks city code has a single-sentence entry in its rules and regulations for public parks. The rule simply stipulates that it is “unlawful to violate any rules or regulations.”
That ambiguity made it tough for police officers to shoo away people who would drive, say, snowmobiles off designated trails along the Greenway, according to city administrators.
City rules already spelled out the Greenway’s hours of operation, which wouldn’t change if the proposal is approved later this month, and restricted vehicles to certain areas, but Police Chief Mike Hedlund said a city rule doesn’t carry the same legal force as an entry in city code.
“The sanctions, if you violated the rules, were basically nothing. A hand slap,” Hedlund told the Herald. “It was more an administrative type of thing. ... Occasionally, we were able to cite people, but this will just make it just cleaner and easier.”
If it’s finalized next month, the proposal would ensconce the following rules in city code:
The Greenway’s hours of operation would be 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily outside of the Red River State Recreational Area, which is open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day.
People would be banned from driving or parking a motor vehicle outside of designated areas, and from leaving a vehicle parked there for longer than 24 hours.
The fine for violating the proposed rules would be no more than $1,000 and no more than 90 days in jail.
'Subtarget' funding exchange
In related news, council members voted 5-1 to formally request a roadway funding swap with Polk County administrators. Using another mayoral tie-breaker earlier this year, council members voted to add a $2.2 million plan to rebuild a road along an East Grand Forks industrial park in the city’s long-range transportation plan.
But getting that long-range transportation plan changed means going through the Metropolitan Planning Organization, whose officials were skeptical of the idea. That put East Grand Forks officials in a municipal time crunch because the $860,000 worth of federal “subtarget” funding upon which the project would rely flows through the planning organization and the city is only up for it every four years.
To buy time to study the industrial park road plan and satisfy the planning organization, the city hopes to, in effect, give its quadrennial federal allocation to the county in 2022 in exchange for the county giving its own allocation to the city in 2023.
Voting against the request was Vetter, who has been a longstanding proponent of a roundabout that the industrial park road is leapfrogging in the city’s line for that federal funding. Council members in 2017 also set aside that roundabout for consideration for 2018 federal funding.