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EGF passes 2010 budget

After lengthy discussions and an attempt to override the mayor's veto Tuesday, the East Grand Forks City Council passed a 2010 budget and tax levy -- but not what was originally proposed or the version that drew the mayor's disapproval.

After lengthy discussions and an attempt to override the mayor's veto Tuesday, the East Grand Forks City Council passed a 2010 budget and tax levy -- but not what was originally proposed or the version that drew the mayor's disapproval.

Council members approved a compromise suggested by City Administrator Scott Huizenga that results in a 5 percent levy increase, an increase of about $11,000 over the originally proposed 4.6 percent levy increase with a total of about $2.8 million.

Huizenga told the Herald that because property valuation went up 5 percent this year, the approved levy will result in the same rate of city taxes for residents as last year's levy.

Council member Marc DeMers introduced an amendment Dec. 1 that raised the proposed levy by $100,000 to offset growing capital improvement expenses in 2011 and 2012, and his version of the levy and budget passed by a 5-2 vote.

But Mayor Lynn Stauss, who threatened to veto any levy increase of more than 5 percent, followed through on his promise Dec. 9 and vetoed the 8.3 percent amended increase, forcing the council to get six of the seven members to vote for the budget in order to pass.

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Discussion

Michael Dempsey, a 65-year resident of East Grand Forks, brought up "some problems" on the council, including the "power struggles" between the mayor and the council members. He said he supported the mayor's decision of not approving an increase over 5 percent because of the tough economy.

"All of you sitting up here should throw your power struggle stuff in the trash for now," he said.

Another person said residents are facing higher costs in other parts of their lives, and the argument that a higher tax now could help lower future tax increases didn't make sense because the council would just approve an increase next year.

Council President Dick Grassel said city leaders began the budget process months ago and worked to get the tax levy down from a Sept. 15 preliminary increase of 12.8 percent. But he pointed out the council did not approve the proposed 4.6 percent increase before it was sent for a vote and there was no prior agreement to support it.

"There was nothing secretly done trying to convince anyone," he said about comments suggesting DeMers' amendment was agreed upon during phone calls with the council members who voted for it.

DeMers said he would "fully concur" that there was a power struggle during this process but said those types of struggles happen every day.

"To equate that... with saying there's a lack of interest in what's best for East Grand Forks I think is false," he said.

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DeMers added no council member is ever in favor of raising taxes, "but it's not sustainable over the course of time" to keep the tax levy from increasing.

Council Vice President Henry Tweten, one of two council members to vote against the amended budget, said open government is an important issue and DeMers' concerns over rising capital expenses should have been brought up earlier in the budget process.

"The people got a surprise," he said. "We don't need surprises unless it's an emergency."

Stauss called the budget the "hardest job we have in the year" and said he thought the council had come to a consensus on the proposal before it came up for a vote.

But council member Mike Pokrzywinski said no one should have been surprised about concerns over the proposal because several people brought up issues with rising capital expenses.

The vote

The council then voted to reconsider the amended tax levy and needed to get six votes to override the veto. But the vote ended up exactly like it did Dec. 1, with Tweten and council member Greg Leigh voting no.

The same thing happened when the council reconsidered the 2010 budget, which also failed to override by a 5-2 vote.

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Huizenga then introduced a resolution bringing the levy increase to 5 percent, a compromise because it took in an additional $11,000 to offset future capital expenses while staying below the mayor's veto level. But it wasn't clear if even that proposal would pass.

Leigh said he would vote against it because he was sticking with the 4.6 percent increase and did not want to raise taxes any higher. "We need to look at what's in the budget and see what we can and cannot afford," he said.

DeMers said it was a last-minute proposal -- a complaint some council members had about his amendment. "I don't see how anybody could understand the implication of this at such a short notice," he said.

Pokrzywinski recommended the council hold a special meeting later this month to give members more time to look over the proposal but said he would "reluctantly" vote for it. "This is something that landed in front of us again," he said.

The new levy and 2010 budget were both passed by 5-2 votes, with Tweten and Leigh voting no.

After the meeting, Huizenga told the Herald if the council hadn't been able to pass a budget by the end of the year, it would have made the city go back to its 2008 levy -- $133,000 less than what was passed Tuesday.

Pokrzywinski said the mayor "held all the cards" and that's why he voted for the compromise. "It was the most we were going to get."

DeMers said he had to weigh his personal beliefs against the city needs when deciding on his vote. "Sometimes in a small compromise, whatever you can get is better than nothing," he said.

He said he didn't want to be an "obstructionist" and wanted people to have confidence in their council and said his amendment was intended to help in future years. "I don't think it was meant to solve problems, but it was meant to address future needs."

Johnson covers East Grand Forks city government. Reach him at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send e-mail to rjohnson@gfherald.com .

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