Hopes for a pedestrian bridge spanning Highway 65 in Isanti officially came to end Tuesday after a struggle to replace funding for the project came up empty.
In the regular meeting on March 1 the Isanti City Council unanimously voted against pursuing grants offered by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which effectively ended the project since the grants were the last avenue of additional funding that Isanti could have pursued.
The Council had previously voted 4-1 to table to the project until city staff had researched the DNR grants. In the March 1 meeting City Engineer Brad DeWolf presented three grant programs available through the DNR to cover the $250,000 shortfall for the project.
All of the grants required Isanti to contribute the full amount it had set aside for the project. While Parks and Recreation funds cannot be transferred to the general fund by state law, Mayor George Wimmer recently pointed out that the $126,000 in interest the fund had built up could be used to offset city spending—an appealing option for the Council when faced with a diminished tax capacity and likely cuts to state funding.
Going forward with the project would not only require spending that money, it would also create an ongoing expense for Isanti in the future to maintain the bridge.
Wimmer also pointed out that the funding situation would only worsen in time because construction costs would rise faster than the interest would build on the designated funds, a point that Councilor Ross Lorinser affirmed.
“We need to either decide to go with this grant or decide to not do anything at all,” Lorinser said.
Councilor Sue Larson expressed her regret at missing out on what might be the only opportunity for what she sees as an essential service for Isanti.
“I see somewhere in the future that we will want to connect the east and the west side of 65,” Larson said.
Isanti resident join in talks about difficult changes
Despite anticipatory cuts made by Isanti administration in 2008, the magnitude and length of the economic recession will force city staff and council to make another round of difficult decisions in order to stay afloat.
That was the message delivered to Isanti residents in a community meeting held prior to the City Council meeting on Tuesday. The meeting, which was the first of two, was held to give residents a sense of the city’s impending financial hardships and gain their input on how the Council should prioritize municipal services.
“We’re going to have to pick and choose some things,” Mayor Wimmer said in his introduction. “We’re not going to be able to go forward with everything we’ve had.”
Finance Director Kristi Smith gave a brief presentation explaining how the drop in home values and anticipated cuts in funding from the state government would impact Isanti. Smith said current projections showed the city with fund balances of -1 percent by 2014.
Smith cautioned that it was difficult to plan for state funding, since the legislature has yet to decide on the matter. Right now Isanti has planned for $200,000 in state money for 2011, and no funding at for the next several years, but Smith explained those numbers were guesswork.
City Administrator Don Lorsung also provided an overview of the various city departments, including the staff sizes for each and the annual expenditures.
After two residents spoke up during the open forum in defense of the Community Center, which is heavily subsidized by the city, Wimmer responded that it was difficult to prioritize services because of the diverse range of public opinion and the intangible effects of each cut.
Wimmer provided the example of shutting down the Isanti Police Department and instead contracting with the Isanti County Sheriff’s Department, in which case he said the community would expect a diminished range of services from law enforcement, including the end of the highly popular School Resource Officer program.
“If you talk to 10 people, you get 11 different opinions,” Wimmer said.
The Council concluded that additional information should be made publicly available in order to paint a clearer picture for residents on how money is spent in the city and which funds are designated for limited purposes and which can be used to offset shortfalls. A second community meeting covering the same topics will be held on Friday, March 4 at noon.