by Dennis Dalman
The City of Sartell is sailing through turbulent waters rather nicely because it is not a single ship but a single-minded fleet of ships.
That is the marine metaphor Sartell Mayor Joe Perske used during his State-of-the-City speech to the Sartell Area Chamber of Commerce at its last noon luncheon.
Perske used that metaphor to express the intricate cooperation among so many entities within the city: the council, city staff, the school district, the community education program, scouting groups, the Chamber of Commerce, the Senior Connection, businesses, service organizations, organizers of city events such as Apple Duathlon and SummerFest and a wide range of fundraisers, volunteers and contributors in time, money and in-kind work – not to mention cost-sharing among city-based groups.
Without that kind of vast cooperation, Perske said, the City of Sartell would likely be in dire straits because of financially troubling waters. Those partnerships, those relationships, he added, keep the city viable, financially afloat and dynamic.
As in other cities, omens of a sagging economy have visited Sartell. For example, local government aid from the state, which at one time was hundreds of thousands of dollars, is now a trickle at best – maybe $3,000 this coming year. Reimbursement credits from the state are also way down, and two huge forfeitures of residential-development properties – Madison Crossing and Sandstone Village – are looming. Many of the lots in those developments – a number approaching 60 – have been forfeited and will be sold off by the county this summer, Perske noted. Those empty lots, of course, mean no taxes coming into the city.
Sartell, Perske said, is often caught between a rock and a hard place, financially. In 2000, the population was about 10,000. Now the population is more than 16,000. That influx of people and needs compelled the city to hugely expand city services and infrastructure of virtually every description: police, fire safety, water supply, street construction, street repair, snow removal, sewer, water, inspections, recreation and more.
However, the city’s revenue just could not keep up with the needs. Perske compared that dilemma to squeezing water out of a sponge until there is no more water to squeeze out, to the point where the sponge itself begins to shred.
In the meantime, Perske added, the city has adopted hiring freezes without replacements; it has had to delay some city projects (such as replacement of water and sewer lines on the east side), and it has put on hold the planned renovations at the fire station – to name just some.
“Why can’t the city just keep cutting?” people have asked Perske. He tells them bluntly there is nothing left to cut. While tightening the belt, he said, costs continue to increase, such as energy and insurance, to name just two.
Sartell residents, naturally, are concerned about taxes and tax increases. But Perske reminds them the city has by far the lowest taxes in the greater St. Cloud area. He also notes that when people receive their tax statements, they should remind themselves that only 30 percent of those taxes go to the city. The rest is for the county and school district.
Another example of a city dilemma is the amount Sartell is expected to pay for the major upgrade project at the St. Cloud wastewater treatment plant (which treats Sartell’s sewage). Sartell has hoped to pay for that over time with sewer and water access charges to new developments. But as developments declined, so did those charges and the expected income.
Another devastating piece of news was the announcement last year that Verso paper plant – long an economic bedrock of Sartell – would lay off 175 employees because of declining worldwide demand for a certain kind of paper that it made.
And yet, despite those setbacks and disappointments, Sartell still has plenty to be grateful for, Perske added. Many new businesses have opened in the city, including those at Epic Center; and the huge medical campus (a virtual medical hub in central Minnesota) continues to grow in the city. Several multi-family complexes are being built, such as Emerald Court and Grandview South.
Throughout the last decade, the tax base of Sartell has become much more diversified.
Another dose of good news is the ongoing developments in Sartell parks and recreation areas, even though a lack of city revenue presents challenges. Nevertheless, a private group has raised just about $1 million for Phase I developments in Pinecone Regional Park (the former Sartell Golf Course land), and that park has been graded and prepped by an enormous amount of volunteer or in-kind labor. The same kind of cooperation, contributions and sweat equity are helping bring needed improvements to Champion Field and other parks. Lions Park and Rotary Park, to name two others, were developed through generous private contributions and volunteer labor.
Another bit of good news is the planned regional park next to the Sauk River in south Sartell. Hopefully, Perske said, land there can soon be purchased by Sartell to secure that land for future development – Sauk River Regional Park.
It will require using $500,000 of bonding money approved by the state, a $500,000 Legacy Grant. The city will have to match that money with an amount of about $500,000. But the hope for securing that regional park property amounts to a race with time because if the state bonding money is not used this year, the city will lose that money.
Perske noted in 2011, there were 46 single-family construction permits issued in Sartell, compared to only 26 in St. Cloud and nine in Sauk Rapids.
The Sartell-St. Stephen School District, Perske said, continues to make outstanding achievements in the three “A’s” – Academics, Arts, Athletics.
Perske said there are several optimistic efforts in the works currently. Perske has met with the former and current Verso paper mill managers, and there are high hopes the third paper-making machine and its products can become competitive in the worldwide paper market, thus ensuring Verso can remain viable. Perske, council members and staff are working with the State Legislature in an effort to increase local government aid – maybe to the tune of about $120,000.
Last, but not least, Sartell and other neighboring cities are asking the legislature to extend the regional half-cent sales tax from 2018 (when the current extension is due to expire) to the year 2038. (The House recently passed this; now it’s onto the Senate for a vote.) Voters in all cities, as in the previous two sales-tax referendums, would have to approve the extension. If that occurs, there will be surveys and meetings with Sartell residents to best determine on which projects to spend the sales-tax revenues.