Council approves overall 9.98% preliminary levy increase

Published 6:15 am Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Several councilors pledge to reduce levy before December

The Albert Lea City Council voted 6-1 Monday to approve an overall 9.98% preliminary tax levy increase for 2022.

The increase totals $669,681, which includes an increase in the general fund levy of about $674,000 — or 13.97% — and a decrease in the debt levy by about $4,319 — or 0.23%.

Albert Lea City Finance Director Kristi Brutlag said for a $100,000 home, the increase equates to $32.77, or $2.73 a month.

Sixth Ward Councilor Al “Minnow” Brooks was the sole opposing vote and said though he recognized there was still much more work to be done before the budget and levy are approved in December, and there were many unresolved issues, the preliminary increase was still too high for him to be acceptable.

Several of the other councilors said they would vote for the preliminary levy knowing there was still much more work to be done to reduce the budget.

State law requires councils pass the preliminary levy by the end of September. The final levy cannot be increased from the preliminary levy when the council votes in December but can only be decreased.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do on this, and this number better come down a long ways before this final budget is approved in December,” said 1st Ward Councilor Rich Murray.

Third Ward Councilor Jason Howland said he looked forward to “looking through every line item with a fine-tooth comb” and said the increase would not be acceptable to him in December unless it was reduced quite a bit.

Mayor Vern Rasmussen Jr. encouraged residents not to get too worked up over the preliminary levy as there were still many unknowns going into the vote, including with the city’s health insurance and union negotiations.

City Finance Director Kristi Brutlag said the preliminary budget included a 647,000 increase in revenues, and a $947,000 increase in expenditures from 2021.

Increased expenditures come from $660,000 in personnel costs, including a 2% wage adjustment and a 13% increase in health insurance costs, though much tied to the insurance has not yet been finalized.

Personnel increases also include about $20,000 for staffing an election in 2022, a new shared fire and police department community service officer for about $100,000 including benefits, a new shared arena and parks position for $70,000 with benefits and the new community enrichment director for $140,000 with benefits.

City Manager Ian Rigg said the new community service officer duties would include officer-inspected code enforcement and would also include administration of some of the code enforcement issues, including rental inspections, and help create continuity between shifts on the fire department throughout the week. He said there are already expenses being accrued this year for some of these duties because things such as overtime.

He said the new arena and parks position would spend six months at the arena and six months in park maintenance and combines two temporary help positions. The position was wanted to create consistency.

The community enrichment director takes on some duties of the former assistant city manager but also looks for ways to work with other area agencies to find efficiencies and reduce duplications. Eventually the position will take over the position of Blue Zones director after the current director retires. The library, recreation and communications directors will also report to the position.

Brutlag said revenue increases in 2022 include the increase in the levy, $20,000 in franchise fees, $50,000 in rental registrations, $57,000 in local government aid, $18,000 in MSA maintenance and $62,000 in transfers from utility funds. Decreases in revenue are about $150,000 in hazardous property removal and $85,000 for interests on investments.

She said city staff and members of the council will continue to go through the budget in detail ahead of December when the final tax levy and budget will be approved.

In separate action, the council also approved a preliminary $109,000 levy for the Albert Lea Housing and Redevelopment Authority, which is the same as the previous year. All of the money will go toward the Shady Oaks brick stabilization project.

Look to the Tribune for more from the meeting.