Concerns regarding the annual stormwater charges led to many questions and comments during the recent North Branch City Council meeting.
Residents attended the council meeting on Nov. 9 to speak during the public hearing regarding the rural stormwater charges.
Residents who are not customers of the North Branch Water and Light were billed a separate charge to pay for rural stormwater. The stormwater charges started approximately in 2008 and have been on the residents’ taxes since then. The way these charges have been collected has changed as now these charges are added to the residents’ water bill.
The city is also charging these fees based on per parcel. Those that are not customers of North Branch Water and Light are billed a separate charge. This brought some tension to residents that are seeing this for the first time — mainly residents that own multiple agriculture parcels.
“You talk about combing the parcels; how about for a particular landowner, no matter how many parcels they own, they pay the fee. That would be a whole lot fairer to somebody who doesn’t necessarily need to go through the hassle of trying to combine them all into one parcel,” resident John Peterson said. “Whatever name the land is under, they get one bill, doesn’t matter if they have six, seven or 17 parcels.”
Peterson brought the idea to council on making changes to the charges for those that own multiple parcels.
“You do raise the point; maybe there is at some time next year, talking about, is there other ways to look at this, whether it is an acreage fee or some other type of way to look at it,” Council Member Patrick Meacham said.
Even though the council and city staff did their best to make this charge as smooth as possible, it didn’t seem fair to all residents.
“There’s no one definition of fair. The council had established this fee years ago, knowing the fee would be charged on a per parcel basis whether you have a city lot, whether you have 140 acres. As a single tax parcel, you are paying one fee. Again, this was a decision that was made well before this council ever came into their elected office,” City Administrator Renae Fry said.
As the council faces these concerns, the mayor appreciates residents bringing forward these issues.
“Our hands were kind of tied on this, because that’s the way it was before the state changed the law, as that it had to be done that way,” Mayor Jim Swenson said. “So this is something that can be addressed, but nobody has brought that to us before.”
The main point from this conversation was to see if changes could be made for those that own multiple parcels. Swenson asked if this could be a possibility.
“There are six parcels, is it possible to go to one, or would that be some kind of ordinance to change it to one from six because it’s farm land,” Swenson asked.
“If the landowner would like to try to combine the parcels, they may have that ability if they are in the same section; that is an option,” Nate Sondrol said, the city’s GIS planning specialist.
Another concern expressed during the hearing was some residents don’t feel they are seeing where this money is going to and how they are benefiting from it.
Resident Harley Johnson, who has three parcels in his name, asked: “How is this fee benefiting me? Where is it going?”
Council Member Amanda Darwin gave some insight on how to see the benefits.
“All of us benefit as residents by having clean streets, clean access points throughout the city,” Darwin said.
Fry clarified how the water fund for the city is used.
“Every parcel contributes to a fund the city uses. That fund, to the best of its ability, is to do its job because the Sunrise River has been declared an impaired water,” Fry said.
She also explained how the city has no option when it comes to preserving their water.
“We’re covered by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Wetland Conservation Act. The city is required to preserve, protect and otherwise take care of the Sunrise River. We are mandated to do that,” Fry said.
After much discussion, the council members expressed they would like to take a look at the situation in the near future.
Veteran’s memorial update
Fry took the feedback from the previous council meeting and came up with a two-part plan.
“We do want to make sure we gain a full understanding of the goals and needs of the individuals who utilize the city’s parks; perhaps the best way to gather that information might be through some type of a survey,” Fry said.
She mentioned this survey could serve multiple services, such as guiding plans for the Park Trails and Open Spaces Commission. After speaking with the commission, Fry came with details of what the survey could cover.
“Nate and I would craft a survey that would ask how often they’re using it, how do they use the park, who to ask about Central Park specifically, but we would also ask for their feedback on how they would view the memorial,” Fry said.
The survey would be held from Dec. 10 to Jan.7 and possibly held at the high school.
The second piece of the plan includes a community meeting.
“We would try to keep it to one meeting, maybe no more than two hours, but use a series of conversations meant to sort of build consensus around visions, goals and locations of this veterans memorial,” Fry said.
“Staff thought that possibly Tuesday, Jan. 18, might be a good night for this meeting,” Fry said. “I contacted Lakes Region EMS and they are willing to make their meeting facility room on the second floor available to us for that night — it is tentatively reserved, pending a decision from council.”
Council had some discussion in regard to this plan.
“I personally love the two-prong approach. Individuals might not be able to show up, but that survey can really kind of lead the conversation and questions that we need to filter through,” Darwin said.
Meacham brought up a different side of what the survey could bring to the discussion.
“I would think there could be an opportunity in the online/paper survey, also identify the veterans, maybe a possibility to self-identify if they’ve been donor or want to be a donor, interested in being a donor. So we could also intentionally help with kick-start that fundraising,” Meacham said.
After discussion, council decided unanimously to approve both parts of the plan including the survey and hosting a community meeting on Jan. 18 at the Lakes Region meeting room. The time of the meeting is being determined.
North Branch Police Chief Dan Meyer read a complaint made on Oct. 24 that an employee of Minnesota Tobacco and Vape sold tobacco to a 17-year-old.
Meyer spoke on the investigation with council, as they would need to make a decision to revoke the tobacco license of owner, Jacob Willenbring. Willenbring was not the employee who sold to the minor.
“During the course of the investigation, our officer did make contact with the employee, who admitted that she sold the items to the minor and did not ask the minor for identification prior to the sale. Further conversation with the employee, she did admit that she does not regularly ask for identification of regulars who have shown their ID in the past or come in the store at least twice a week,” Meyer said.
According to the employee, the 17-year-old came into the business and purchased a few items. After returning to his vehicle, she mentioned she saw what might have been the parents of the customer. She saw the customer’s vehicle leaving, and shortly after, the parents of the customer entered the business with a police officer to report she had just sold tobacco products to a minor.
She has worked at the business since June 2021 and at one point was the only employee to be working.
The employee, Jazmyn Fiel, attended the meeting to address the situation.
“What I do want to point out is starting off, yes, I will admit I did not check the customer’s ID that day. I was in a rush and it just slipped my mind, as he does come in fairly often,” Fiel said. “It just processed as, ‘Oh I know this person, he comes in here all the time,’ and I was just in a little bit of a hurry as the store was busy, and I will admit that was a mistake on my part fully.”
Fiel said she is not aware of when to check for identification, whether it’s within a certain age, below 40 or 30 years old.
Council has knowledge that this business owner does not have a good record when it comes to business, and council members were still unsure when he requested a tobacco license in August 2021.
“We expected this in August. Unfortunately we had no legal basis to deny the license. We knew we were being lied to then and we have proof now,” Darwin said. “There’s the other part. You were too busy to do the legal obligation to check the ID, and then you give us the information that this is a repeat customer, so you in fact sold to this customer repeatedly, and this hurts my heart.”
The business broke multiple city ordinances including underage tobacco sale, not asking for identification, and the licensee not properly training their employees.
These violations would cost a fine of $100 to the employee and a $200 to the business owner. The final decision from council was to revoke the tobacco license of Minnesota Tobacco and Vape, with the motion passing unanimously.