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Council approves preliminary 7.94% overall levy increase

The Albert Lea City Council on Monday approved a 7.94% preliminary tax levy increase for 2021. 

The increase totals about $518,000, including about $398,000 in the general fund levy and about $119,000 in the debt service levy. 

Finance Director Kristi Brutlag said an almost $489,000 increase in personnel costs are expected in 2021, including the implementation of the city’s compensation and classification study. Budgeted are 2% wage adjustments, and also a 9% increase in the city’s portion of health insurance premium costs. 

She noted 71% of the city’s budget is personnel costs. The three largest departments include public safety with 42% of expenses in the budget, culture and recreation with 22% and public works with 17%.

Brutlag said the budget calls for postponing the hiring of an assistant city manager and a full-time open library position until July 1. It also calls for not hiring back part-time library staff until April. 

The preliminary total levy was approved at about $7.04 million, with $5.16 million for the general fund levy and $1.88 million for the debt service levy. 

The changes would equate to a monthly increase of $2.42 for a $100,000 home or about $29 per year if approved. Brutlag said that is with a 2.97% increase in the net tax capacity for the city. 

Albert Lea Mayor Vern Rasmussen Jr. said the city has gone eight years without an increase in the operating levy. 

“We are at a bare bones level right now, and so it’s going to get some creative thinking hopefully to get this down,” he said. 

Brutlag said the council, the new city manager and staff will review the budgets for the various city departments in October and November, along with the capital improvement plan for 2021 through 2025. 

The council has until its Dec. 14 meeting to revise its budget and approve a final tax levy. At that time, the council can approve a levy at the same level or lower, but it cannot approve a higher amount. 

Sixth Ward Councilor Al “Minnow” Brooks voted against the preliminary increase.

In other action, the council: 

  • Approved a preliminary Albert Lea Housing and Redevelopment Authority tax levy at $109,000. The housing authority has had the same levy in recent years and would include $59,000 for brick stabilization at Shady Oaks, $40,000 for the Section 8 operating fund and $10,000 for the public housing fund. 

The final HRA levy will be approved in December. 

  • Approved a two-year contract with Minnesota Public Employees Association, representing police sergeants. The agreement includes a 3% wage adjustment Jan. 1 and a 3% adjustment on July 1. 

In 2021, employees will be placed on the newly revised wage scale that was completed as part of the city’s compensation and classification study and will be eligible for step increases. 

The employee contribution toward family health insurance will increase from 15 to 18% in 2020, and the employee contribution toward single health insurance would increase from 10 to 12%. 

  • Approved upgrading to an online permitting program that will allow city staff to process applications, process plan reviews, issue permits and receive payments online without contact with the applicant. 
  • Approved using a portion of the city’s CARES Act funds to replace expiring desktop computer workstations with laptops and docking stations to facilitate working from home if necessary.
  • Approved using portion of the city’s CARES Act funds for the City Council Chambers audiovisual equipment. Upgrades are expected to improve audio in the Council Chambers, improve video quality of HD, allow the public to access video on demand on the internet and allow for live streaming of videos on the internet.
  • Approved the first reading of an ordinance that would allow staff to approve lot reconfigurations instead of having to come before the council. This would apply to platted lots as they meet zoning and subdivision requirements, City Planner Megan Boeck said. 

Council authority would still be needed for adding easements or reconfiguring right of way. 

She said this would reduce the timeframe for applicants before changes are approved and reduce costs. 

  • Approved the use of a hammerhead parking option that would be helpful for properties along Bridge Avenue. 

Boeck said the parking option allows property owners to pull into their driveways normally and then back into the hammerhead, which would then allow them to pull forward onto Bridge Avenue. 

  • Removed tattoo parlors from the list of prohibited uses in the city’s diversified central district. 
  • Amended an error in an ordinance that states setbacks for accessory structures from alleys. The setback should be worded that an accessory structure can be five feet from an alley’s edge. 
  • Approved amending the zoning and land use map for property at 300 N. 10th Ave. from community business district to single family residence district.
  • Approved the donation of paint, supplies and labor to paint the Academy Park warming house. 

The project will be painted by an Albert Lea teenager under the supervision of Holly Karsjens and Shane Koepke, Albert Lea Art Walk members.