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A visit to the Minnesota Capitol

City officials meet with state representatives to discuss local needs

ST. PAUL — Albert Lea officials spoke of the need to increase local government aid on Wednesday during a visit to the Capitol.

The visit, by Albert Lea Mayor Vern Rasmussen Jr., City Manager Chad Adams and 2nd Ward Councilor Larry Baker, was part of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities’ Legislative Action Day.

Rasmussen, Adams and Baker attended a Coalition meeting Wednesday morning. They then listened to a roundtable discussion featuring three state legislators before visiting separately with District 27 Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin; and District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea.

Rasmussen said increasing LGA funding would likely mean the city would have no general fund tax levy increase for the sixth year in a row.

Increasing LGA funding is listed as the No.1 legislative priority for the coalition this year. The organization supports a $45.5 million increase in LGA base funding by fiscal year 2020 and wants LGA funding to meet 2002 levels.

City officials asked Bennett to co-author a bill introduced by two state legislators which would add $45.5 million to the LGA program over the next two years. Rasmussen said the bill has bipartisan support.

An LGA funding increase is necessary to keep property tax levies relatively low, Rasmussen said.

Though Bennett did not commit to co-authoring the bill, she said she will support it.

Rasmussen described recent increases in the city’s debt service tax levy for infrastructure needs. The council passed a 1.29 percent tax levy increase in December.

District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett talks with city leaders Wednesday at the Capitol, including 2nd Ward Councilor Larry Baker. - Sam Wilmes/Albert Lea Tribune

District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett talks with city leaders Wednesday at the Capitol, including 2nd Ward Councilor Larry Baker. – Sam Wilmes/Albert Lea Tribune

Bennett said the Legislature should be able to fund transportation this year.

“I know it’s a priority,” she said.

Bennett has supported dedicating taxes on automobile parts and tires toward roads and bridges.

Rasmussen said road repair costs can take up the entire levy of an entity and discussed high road repair costs for Freeborn County.

“It’s almost impossible for them to deal with those type of things,” he said.

Sparks said LGA and transportation funding will be two of his top priorities during this year’s legislative session.

The coalition is aiming for an investment of at least $350 million for the Corridors of Commerce program, including $300 million in trunk highway bonding and $50 million per year from any budget surplus. The coalition supports an investment of at least $25 million per year for streets in cities of under 5,000 people and $25 million per year for cities with more than 5,000 people.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Leaders discussed a lawsuit filed by the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities against the Environmental Protection Agency. The lawsuit argued that the MPCA’s limits on phosphorus levels in wastewater treatment plants are not based on sound scientific information.

Rasmussen said the EPA does not have the scientific data to demonstrate the limits were justified.

The Coalition supports reforms it said will promote transparency and sound decision making such as reforming the timing of the permit process to allow more input from local governments. It wants to restrict the MPCA from implementing rules it said have not gone through an established rulemaking process and strengthen the standard used by courts to review MPA decisions.

It has been estimated that the rule could cost Albert Lea $8 million to $30 million to upgrade its wastewater treatment facilities to meet the new requirements.

Shell Rock River Watershed District

Local leaders talked about the renewal of the Shell Rock River Watershed District’s half-percent sales tax and support from Albert Lea City Council for Fountain Lake dredging. Rasmussen discussed the dam permit the district secured for the project and the number of steps it must meet to dredge the lake. He suggested simplifying the regulatory process.

The district wants to extend the sales tax for either 15 years or until $15 million is collected.

Bonding, workforce housing

Leaders spoke of possible bonding projects such as Stables area infrastructure, Riverland Area Community College and Blazing Star Landing development.

They talked about the workforce housing tax credit Sparks introduced in 2015 that provides a 40 percent tax credit to investors or developers building in areas with a low vacancy rate.

The Coalition supports investing $45 million over six years for the program with no limitation based on income.

The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities has several other legislative priorities this year that were discussed Wednesday. It supports at least $15 million in state bonding, plus $2 million per year in general fund dollars to go toward the greater Minnesota Business Development Public Infrastructure Grant Program.

The coalition supports $167 million in state bonding to fund clean water grant and loan programs.

Sparks mentioned MPCA regulations and extending the Watershed District’s half-percent sales tax as other priorities this year.

“Going to try to find some solutions to those problems, as well as some of the bonding projects for the local community, if a bonding bill is able to pass this year,” he said.

Sparks said he thought the meeting was constructive.

“It’s always a pleasure to be get a chance to visit with the mayor and city council members and discuss issues that are important to the folks back home,” he said.

Adams said the meetings were productive.

” We enjoyed meeting with Rep. Bennett and Sen. Sparks and had a nice dialogue on the various issues affecting Albert Lea,” he said. ” We appreciate their support for supporting several city priorities and for asking thoughtful questions to better understand the impact on our community.”

About Sam Wilmes

Sam Wilmes covers crime, courts and government for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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