The Forest Lake City Council approved its final 2020 budget and levy on Dec. 9 during a special meeting before its final council meeting of the year. The body’s final decision attempted to balance needed infrastructure improvements with other council priorities and a desire to not drastically increase the overall levy amount or tax rate.

The final levy amount is approximately $10.85 million, a 5.74% increase over 2019’s $10.26 million. As in previous levy discussions, City Administrator Patrick Casey pointed out that the biggest budget increase is due not to general fund items, but to new road funding – both the debt service payment for new road bonds and the creation of a pavement improvement fund.

“It’s a good important step starting to take on road improvement infrastructure,” Casey said. In previous years, the city was not spending any money on road reconstruction outside of state aid and franchise fees.

The city’s new tax rate, which reflects the portion of the city’s taxable market value that will be taxed, is 40.108%, up from 39.58% this year (although still the second lowest tax rate for city taxes for at least the last eight years). Washington County currently estimates a 5.3% average increase for local residential property taxes, which means that a residential property valued at $150,000 in 2020 would have a city tax bill of $506.56, up from $467.44 in 2019. A $200,000 property would be taxed an estimated $725.15 (up from $672.06), and a $300,000 property would be taxed an estimated $1,162.33 (up from $1,081.71).

During the public comment section of the meeting, Forest Lake Lake Association President Jerry Grundtner expressed disappointment that the lake association’s funding from the city was only increasing by about $2,000 to roughly $67,000, far below the $20,000 increase the association had suggested. He pointed out that over the last five years, city contributions to the FLLA have only increased about 1.2 percent, far below the overall percent increase to the levy over that period of time. Calling the lake the largest park in the city, he urged the council to consider a large contribution to help maintain water quality and lake upkeep.

“It is the cornerstone of the city we live in,” he said of the lake.

During the council discussion portion of the meeting, multiple council members expressed their regret, saying that there were multiple items they had hoped the city would put more resources into that ultimately would not fit into an affordable levy increase for the year.

“I just want you to know that you’ve been heard and it’s definitely on the radar as we move forward into kind of fleshing out the details of our strategic plan,” Councilwoman Kathy Bystrom told Grundtner.

Councilman Sam Husnik encouraged people who felt like their city priority hadn’t been fully addressed to “hang in there,” saying that road funding took priority this year when it came to spending increases.

“Other things kind of had to level off for a little while,” he remarked.

The city’s preliminary levy increase certified in September was originally much higher, more than 8%, and several cuts were made to reach the final level. Some large items that were reduced or eliminated from the final budget included the reduction of a recommended code enforcement hire in the Police Department and reduced legal fees and police overtime costs. The levy was also reduced via budgeting for higher revenues from items like interest earnings and building permits.

The council approved the levy 4-0. Councilman Paul Girard was not in attendance.

In other business, several members at or residents near Castlewood Golf Course attended the council’s regular meeting to urge the city to come to an agreement with current golf course operations contractor JT Walker Enterprises. The two parties are currently in a contract dispute that JT Walker owner Jeremy Walker believes would not allow the company to make a substantial profit running the course, and the city has been exploring alternative means of managing the site. The people interested to keeping JT Walker on, led by nearby resident Barb Pribyl, spoke of the friendly and welcoming environment and the large private investment Jeremy Walker and previous company owner Jim Trudeau have put into Castlewood.

“The course is in the best shape it’s ever been,” Pribyl said, urging the city to work with JT Walker to find an amenable solution.

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