by Dennis Dalman
At the March 14 Sartell City Council meeting, which turned into a virtual tug-of-war of emotions and conflicting opinions, council members voted 3-2 to approve a tax-abatement financing plan to bond for a community center and other amenities.
At the two-hour public hearing, the long-time contentious “library issue” pros-and-cons surfaced repeatedly from many people in the audience. About two dozen library supporters attended.
Council members David Peterson and Amy Braig-Lindstrom voted against the tax-abatement funding mechanism. Mayor Sarah Jane Nicoll and council members Steve Hennes and Pat Lynch voted yes.
Before it even began, Mayor Nicoll announced the hearing was about one question only: whether or not to approve tax-abatement funding up to the amount of $13.5 million for amenities. The issue, she said, is not about which specific amenities will or will not be funded. Despite Nicoll’s advisory, however, it soon became apparent library supporters in the audience intended to speak their minds. And speak their minds they did.
Sartell City Administrator Mary Degiovanni emphasized the resolution is not one to issue bonds or to approve this or that project but merely a financial mechanism that can be used to bond at lower interest rates. A financial official explained to the audience tax-abatement bonds are used in some special situations, such as when a project is expected to be funded, for example, by sales-tax income (as is the case with the Sartell Community Center and related projects). Basically, the tax-abatement method of financing assures bond-holders their investment will be paid back via property taxes on certain designated properties if sales-tax revenue proves to not be enough to repay the bond. Using the tax-abatement method can save a city up to 1 or 2 percent on interest rates. Sartell has used that method of bonding before, such as for the recent Pinecone Road improvements.
Last year, the Sartell City Council agreed, 5-2, to construct a community center on a site in the south of the city at a cost of about $11 million. It’s expected to be paid for through the half-cent sales-tax revenue the city will collect through the year 2038.
At the March 14 public hearing, the tax-abatement proposal would be the financial mechanism to pay for up to $13.5 million – about $11 million for the center and the rest ($2.5 million) for other kinds of amenities, possibly those in city parks or at the center.
Some in the audience – the library supporters – wanted to know why specific amenities are not spelled out in the three-page resolution for tax-abatement funding. The resolution, Degiovanni said, is meant only as an approval of that kind of funding mechanism, not specific amenities. But the language in the resolution, she added, is open-ended enough to cover any kind of amenities, including perhaps a library as part of the community center or separate from the center.
Degiovanni’s comments sparked a flurry of comments from library supporters in the audience. Those who spoke included long-time library advocates Joe Perske, Henry Smoryinski and Zurya Anjum, all three of whom stepped to the microphone several times to share their concerns. Ten others, including two children, also spoke in favor of a library.
Two speakers in the audience praised the council’s decision to build a community center in south Sartell.
Jackie Peterschick said the council, architect, engineer and others used due diligence in research and planning for a community center. She and her family use the St. Cloud Library often and she said it’s only six miles from their home, a 10-minute drive. Peterschick said she is tired of seeing letters to editors in local newspapers “crucifying” the mayor and council members who voted for the community center. The Friends of the Library should start showing some respect, she said, and not giving only part of the story when talking with others.
Sartell resident Amanda Schreiner also praised the council. Some adults, she said, are acting like spoiled adults when they complain the nearest library is six miles away. Sales-tax money can be used for other things besides a library, she said, adding she totally supports the proposed community center.
“I support you,” she told the council, “and think you’re doing a great job.”
The biggest concern of library supporters at the tax-abatement hearing is that they wanted to know what specific amenities will be realized with the extra $2.5 million of the $13.5-million bond.
Degiovanni said the council has not determined yet which amenities they could be so they remain open-ended, repeating the money could possibly be used for a library.
Supporters then said they would like “library” to be spelled out in the resolution so that later, after the community center is built, there could be some sales-tax money to pay for a branch library or some kind of library services. They referred repeatedly to the two sales-tax referenda approved by voters that promised a “library” as an amenity for which the tax revenue could be used.
Twice the audience burst into applause when library supporters spoke, causing Mayor Nicoll, tapping her gavel, to call for order.
Several who spoke noted the Sartell Planning Commission at its last meeting voted unanimously not to approve a land acquisition in south Sartell for a community center, stating it would not be in the best interests of the city. However, to counter that, two members of the council said the planning-commission members had merely been voting their own opinions on that issue, not voting for the facts of the land-use request in front of them.
The following are paraphrased summaries of comments from library supporters at the March 14 tax-abatement hearing:
- The council should hold a public hearing for how the $2.5 million will be spent. Such input was not encouraged during the community-center negotiations, they argued, especially not from library supporters. Degiovanni disagreed, saying the city has always welcomed input via a variety of forums.
- A library is more than just books. It can provide social interactions important for mental health, literacy, children’s activities and other programming.
- The council has not been listening to all residents of the city, said one man, who claimed the council is “blowing a lot of money without telling us what it’s for.”
- Several said they are upset because the community center was not planned for a central-city location.
- Residents have wanted a library for at least two decades, the Great River Regional Library system is waiting to hear from Sartell, but the council dropped the ball, according to former Sartell Mayor Joe Perske. There is no answer as to where money will come from for a library, he added. “You owe it to the community to have an answer to that before this financing goes through,” he told the council.
- The suggestion a future library could be paid for via property taxes is unrealistic because residents won’t want property-tax increases, especially if the $105-million school bond passes May 24.
When it came time to vote after the May 14 hearing, all council members weighed in with their opinions.
Mayor Nicoll said she appreciated the passionate concerns of the people at the public hearing and how they made their wishes known at the hearing but that the purpose of the hearing was to determine a financial mechanism only, not to determine amenities.
Council member Steve Hennes agreed, adding the council has always been amenable to putting a library or library services in the community center or somewhere else.
Council member Pat Lynch said council members who “lost” on the community-center issue (members Amy Braig-Lindstrom and David Peterson) should forget about it and start voting in the best interests of the city, such as being in favor of the tax-abatement resolution. “Some people just don’t like where we’re at, at the moment,” Lynch said, after criticizing planning-commission members for allegedly using just their opinions in voting 5-0 for opposing the community-center site.
Peterson said the council should take into consideration the “comfort level” of all Sartell residents and add language to the tax-abatement resolution that would earmark exactly on which amenities the $13.5 million in bond money would be spent.
Braig-Lindstrom said her conscience prompted her to vote no. She reiterated her disagreements with the council and city staff about various issues in the past and present, said she is always accused of something or other when asking city staff for answers, and then she even pounded on the council desk at one point to express her frustration.
The Sartell Newsleader regrets there is not enough space to report in more detail the March 14 council meeting. To view a taped version, go to the city’s website at www.sartellmn.com, then scroll down to videos.