Police contract talks with Breitung on hold

Bizar Male

Marshall Helmberger

TOWER— After lengthy discussion, the city council here, on Monday, voted to authorize two representatives to continue talks with Breitung Township over the future of local law enforcement, but stopped short of agreeing to discuss a possible contract for police services from the township.
The final motion, by council member Dave Setterberg, amended his initial proposal to discuss a possible police contract with the township, but would have limited expenditures for the service to 20 percent of the city’s levy, or about $80,000. In the last full year under its former Breitung police contract, the city spent approximately $125,000, or nearly one-third of the city’s levy.
Yet the council wasn’t ready to approve contract talks with Breitung, at least without more information. “I would like to see more options that we could vote on,” said council member Kevin Norby.
Council member Sheldon Majerle urged the council to wait and see what kind of police department the township establishes. The town board recently approved a motion to reconstitute the police department which it disbanded back in March, although it appears it will be a smaller force than the prior department. Township officials are currently in the process of hiring a police chief, although Majerle noted that the township has only received a couple applications for the job.
In the meantime, Majerle said he was comfortable continuing to rely on the St. Louis County Sheriff for law enforcement coverage. “I’m not displeased with the way the sheriff has been handling calls that I’ve been associated with,” he said. Majerle said he hears a lot more from residents about the condition of the streets than he has about the disbanding of the Breitung police and would like to see more funding directed toward more tangible improvements for city residents.
Council member Joe Morin, who had seconded Setterberg’s original motion, agreed that the city has many other needs. “I get all that,” he said. But he argued that the city should continue talking to the township, if only to have some influence over the final configuration of the department. “I don’t think it hurts to engage the township,” he said.
Morin and Setterberg had both served on a joint committee with Breitung that had explored various options for local police coverage. “We’ve come this far, why not continue?” Morin asked.
Setterberg said he was comfortable either waiting or continuing to talk. “But if we wait, what’s the trigger point?” he asked.
Norby asked if the city would be committing to a contract if it continued talking to the township. “No, not in any way,” said Setterberg, noting that any agreement would have to come back to the council.
Without any direction to negotiate a contract, the council left any discussion of contract expenses out of the final motion, which the council then approved unanimously, authorizing Morin and Setterberg to continue talking with the township about the police issue.
In related action, the council approved a request by Majerle to seek the return of the city-owned police vehicle, which the township was supposed to return within 60 days of the cancellation of the police contract. Clerk-Treasurer Victoria Ranua said the township had requested an extension after questions were raised about the ownership of some of the equipment included with the vehicle.
Majerle initially faced some pushback on his suggestion. Mayor Orlyn Kringstad questioned whether the city had space to store the vehicle if it is returned. “Right now, it’s in a safe, secure place and we don’t know if we have a place for it,” said Kringstad. “It’s our property,” responded Majerle. “We should be able to bring it home.”
Ranua said she had checked with the city’s public works department and was told that there is sufficient storage space available for the vehicle. With that, Morin made the motion to go get the vehicle and store it in Tower. Morin’s motion then passed unanimously.
Water main funding redirected
In other business, the council approved a motion to forego $843,000 that had been earmarked from an Army Corps grant to help pay for a new city water main. Instead, those funds will be redirected to help pay for the new drinking water treatment plant, that will serve both Tower and Soudan. The engineer’s estimates for the water treatment facility recently jumped significantly, in response to higher costs for most materials for the plant and the water main. It was all part of a joint project proposal that the wastewater board made to the Army Corps last year. Earlier this year, the Corps announced it would provide $3.375 million toward the project. That would have allowed the joint project to move forward but after new engineer’s estimates pushed the project’s cost from $4.5 million to $5.7 million, it left a much larger funding gap.
Ranua raised some objections to the redirecting of funds, questioning whether the city would be able to find sufficient funds in the future to afford the project. “We’re giving up $843,000, so will the wastewater board be willing to give up more of the [state] bonding bill money if it comes through?” she asked.
At the same time, she said she hadn’t seen any documentation that the water main actually needs replacement now. Wastewater manager Matt Tuchel said the board had opted to add in the water main in hopes of attracting more funding.
Ranua also objected to a certificate of financial capability, which she was supposed to sign for the Army Corps on behalf of the city. She said she would prefer that the wastewater board sign the document, acknowledging that even though the project would be largely funded by grants, it would be challenging for the city to cash flow. Tuchel said he had talked to the Army Corps earlier that day and was informed that the funds had to go through the city.
Ranua said the city would likely need to take out a grant anticipation loan to cash flow the project, which she said could generate monthly construction bills of several hundred thousand dollars.
Given few good alternatives, however, the council voted unanimously to redirect the funds to ensure that the water treatment project would go through. “The water main is not as high a priority as the treatment plant,” said Norby.
The council then passed a related motion expressing the city’s desire to work with the wastewater board to “secure fair and equitable funding” to advance the city’s water main replacement at a later date.
Discolored water explained
In related business, Tuchel gave the council an explanation for the yellow coloration of the city’s drinking water, which has appeared in recent months. Tuchel said the current drought appears to be the primary contributing factor, since it has lowered the normal drawdown level in the city’s wells. “This year, we’re drawing from 30 feet down, which is the lowest level ever,” he said, noting that the quality of the water at that level may not be as high as at other levels. In part, he said, the problem is being exacerbated by a sharp increase in water usage this summer. “We’re seeing at least a 50 percent increase in usage over a typical year,” he said.
While the color is reminiscent of the communities’ water prior to installation of the drinking water treatment plant in 1999, Tuchel said the plant continues to do the job it was designed to do: remove iron and manganese. He said the current tint is due to excess tannin in the water, which is a type of natural acid typically derived from vegetation. While Tuchel acknowledged the water is aesthetically displeasing, he said there is nothing in it that is harmful, to the best of his knowledge. “It’s not like we’re putting unsafe water out there,” he said.
Tuchel noted that Breitung Township had authorized the town clerk to call a water emergency that would prohibit lawn watering if the situation grows worse.
Other business
In other business, the council:
• Approved the low bid of $22,015 from Amptek Inc. for the installation of electric meters at seasonal RV sites at the Hoodoo Point Campground at the end of the 2021 season. The council approved a related amendment of the city’s 2021 budget to account for the additional spending.
• Heard a brief update from Mayor Kringstad on discussions over the possible city acquisition of the current county public works facility in Tower once construction of a new joint public works facility is completed. Kringstad described the discussions as “off-the-cuff,” but recommended that the city continue to explore the idea if and when the property becomes available.
• Approved a motion by Morin to allow the Vermilion Country School to install a directional and promotional sign at the corner of Hwy. 169 and Pine Street. Morin said he had visited the site with school administrator Frank Zobitz and said he didn’t believe the sign would impact visibility at the corner. The school will need to work with MnDOT and Tower public works to ensure adequate setbacks.
• Accepted an offer by Ranua to bring back a revised fee schedule for the city’s civic center. Ranua had pointed out to the council that the current rate structure is inconsistent.
• Accepted the resignation of Jim Battin as an EMT from the city’s ambulance service.
• Approved the hiring of Talon Pratt as a new EMT and Tim Williamson as a new EMR. Ambulance supervisor Dena Suihkonen said both new hires are fully qualified to start as soon as they can be on-boarded.
• Approved a motion by Majerle specifying that the city is not exploring or interested in any land trades. “I don’t want to hear on the street again that we are selling or trading land to a certain individual,” he said.

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