Forest Lake council weighs bonding, eyes North Shore Trail for potential improvement project
Various budget options regarding bonding has the council considering four potential routes for street improvement projects over the next five to six years.
The Forest Lake City Council, which met for its workshop on March 15, heard the second update to the city’s molding 10-year financial management plan by Bruce Kimmel of Ehlers Public Finance Advisors. Ehlers first came to council with the first projected plan in November, and the council has since given more directions to update that plan, including expanding the Parks, Trails and Lakes Commission’s budget and determining funding mechanisms for capital equipment and street improvements.
Upon this iteration of the plan, two bonding options were presented to the council to garner enough funds to cover both capital equipment improvements and street improvements, which could be put into the same bond but enter different terms (for instance, the capital equipment could be under a 10-year term, and street improvements could be a 15-year term.)
The bonds were for a first estimated cost of either $4.5 million total or $8 million total.
The different tax levies projected by Ehlers used what they considered a “conservative” estimate of likely tax rates and tax base growth. In the instance of a bond worth $4.5 million, for taxpayers who own a home worth $300,000, it would cost $100 more each year from the years of 2022-2024. For a homeowner of the same amount in the $8 million bond, the initial cost for 2022 would be an increase of roughly $130, and then equal out to about $100 more each year after that, for about ten years.
The capital equipment improvements in the budgeted projections include projected needs for the Police Department and Fire Department, including new vehicles and radio equipment.
The street improvement portion of the bonds is where the council focused its attention during the work session. Both of those scenarios were included in the presentation City Engineer Ryan Goodman had for council on potential street improvement projects slated for 2022-2026. Each proposal assumes a different budget for street improvements.
The first two scenarios Goodman presented did not include money from either potential bond, but utilized funds already earmarked for street improvement projects.
The most pressing roads slated for 2022 wouldn’t change in all four iterations of the plan. Improvements would take place along North Shore Trail/Circle and Hayward Avenue, which crests the peninsula on the north side between First and Second Lake on Forest Lake, and 230th Lane North, also located just north of Second Lake, and finally Itasca Avenue, a bit further north of Third Lake. The timing for those street improvements don’t change between all four proposed plans, as Goodman said they are the most pressing following the 2021 construction cycle.
What differs between the next three plans are when other roads would be slated for construction, and in some instances, if at all.
Members of the council indicated the most interest, following public comments, about a potential timeline for the replacement of Forest Road, particularly the stretch between Highway 97 and 11th Avenue SW, and North Shore Trail along the northwest and north parts of First Lake, between Highway 61 and 235th Street North.
In all four scenarios, Forest Road had a projected timeline of 2023 replacement.
However, a potential timeline for the street improvements along that stretch of North Shore Trail were bounced back and forth. The second plan was the only scenario presented that included work on that portion of North Shore Trail, which would be slated to take place in 2026. However, Goodman said that the final two scenarios shown only indicated work through 2024, as that is the timeline using bond funds, and said that council could also consider 2025 as a potential timeline for North Shore Trail either using estimated earmarked funds or through other sources of funding.
“That gives us more opportunity to try to get more grants,” Goodman said.
The specific work the council wants to accomplish on North Shore Trail is also up for debate, including inquiring with homeowners, who could potentially be assessed for the roadwork, on what they would think about adding a trail. An expanded trail, according to Mayor Mara Bain, has been something residents have indicated they’d like.
Ultimately, Bain said she’d like to hear more public feedback on the issue on a potential North Shore Trail expansion of pedestrian facilities, from area residents including current residents.
All iterations of the potential plans could still change.
To wrap up the street improvements topic, Bain reiterated the long-term concerns the bonds will not address.
“We still haven’t fixed our foundational problem of not having adequate space in the general fund levy, or wherever it needs to go, for ongoing street maintenance. We’re still doing catch up. ...We still haven’t identified what is that sweet spot for all our sources of revenue and what’s the impact for general fund levy, not only to solve for this but to fix our model,” Bain said. “I know that’s a huge challenge, but it does still weigh on me because we’re using debt to cover from what’s been behind. ...
“A 10-year plan might not go far enough to do that. That’s a powerful communication tool, because it describes our historical rates are not producing for the community the results the community expects, and we need to solve for that.”
Councilwoman Kathy Bystrom added: “It’s a little overwhelming, because we are playing catch up in a major way and trying to balance that with operational needs and keeping an eye on our taxpayers, simultaneously. It’s a lot to balance and to process and think about and take in.”
Also included in the updated financial plan were additional funds allocated to the Parks, Trails and Lakes Commission for parks and trails improvements. The PTL commission has expressed frustration during past council meetings at a lack of financial support projected in past iterations of the 10-year financial management plan.
Most notable of the fund allocations includes nearly $1 million in upgrades to playground equipment across the city, over $1 million for an athletic complex expansion and pavilion with bathrooms to Fenway Park, $500,00 for a warming house/community shelter at Beltz Park, and $425,000 for new sports facilities at Beltz Park. Other parks, including Kulencamp, Summerfield, Cedar, and Bayview, all have projects slated in this current proposal. Finally, there is a $100,000 placeholder for the golf course, with no indication of what it would be used for, though the council has had discussions in the past about expanding the current clubhouse into a larger building. At one point in time, the council slated the use of COVID-19 relief money for a new building, citing needs to build it due to social distancing requirements. After public backlash, council returned the funds and tabled the project.
The 10-year financial management plan with Ehlers is still in development with council and city staff, and none of the street improvement plans are solidified at this time.
Senior Community Center to phase in reopening
Jacquie Winiecki, communication and recreation coordinator, presented a reopening plan for the city’s senior community center during the council’s meeting on March 22. The first phase would open the facility up to the public for the first time in over a year due to the pandemic. The opening date is tentatively scheduled for May 10. The first phase would only allow two groups of 10, or 20 people total, not including staff, and would require social distancing and mask wearing at all times. The second phase, which would allow one more group of 10 to attend, wouldn’t be available until June 21, and a third phase, which would be open to capacity under the state’s guidelines, wouldn’t happen until July.
Winiecki said plans are still fluid and still available for change, since she was in the initial phases of developing the reopening plan. Bystrom indicated a desire to expedite the plan, saying the opening felt “slow” compared to others, and asked Winiecki if she had reached out to the county’s emergency management response team for input. Winiecki said she had not at that time, and reopening could be more expedited if the senior board and council agree, and if conditions were appropriate.
In-person city meetings, golf course contract approved
City staff are also working toward getting city meetings in-person again. Assistant City Administrator Dan Undem reported that upgrades to the city’s technology infrastructure will help facilitate a more hybrid approach to council meetings, which will allow staff, council, and other commission members to attend meetings in person and some to call in remotely. A potential shift date has not yet been indicated, but Undem said so far the city seems to be ready from a technology standpoint.
A final approval from council on contract language also confirmed the city will be contracting with Foursome Golf Management, Inc. to run the city-owned Castlewood Golf Course this year. The group took over management of the golf course last year.