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Tax talk turns testy at council meeting; conflict of interest question raised

A discussion about Alexandria Housing and Redevelopment Authority's proposed tax levy turned testy at Monday night's city council meeting.

The HRA requested to impose a tax levy in 2014 that will not exceed $207,900 or 0.0185 percent of the city's taxable market value. That's the maximum amount allowed under state law. This year's HRA levy was $207,250.

HRA Director Jeff Hess said the levy is needed to make up for federal funding cuts.

Council member Virgil Batesole, an out-spoken critic of HRA programs and budget in the past, told HRA Director Jeff Hess that the "abbreviated financial statement" he provided to the council that night didn't justify asking taxpayers for more money.

Batesole wanted to know the financial breakdown of all the HRA projects, such as The Trails, Viking Towers and an apartment complex in east Alexandria. He said that HRA should be making enough money from those projects instead of taxing residents.

When council member Roger Thalman, who serves on the HRA committee, told Batesole that the HRA went over all the numbers previously and that he could answer any questions, Batesole said that words wouldn't satsify him. "I need to see it on paper," he said, adding that he wanted Hess to answer his questions, not Thalman.

Thalman said that City Administrator Jim Taddei has the complete HRA audit in his office.

Batesole tried to make an amendment to delay taking action on the HRA's request until it could provide more information but it failed when no one seconded it. The council approved the levy request on a 4-1 vote, with Batesole voting against it.

Council member Owen Miller then raised a question if Batesole, who owns rental property in the city, had a conflict of interest with HRA requests. Mayor Sara Carlson asked City Attorney Tom Jacobson for his opinion. Jacobson said he would have to look into it. "I don't know if it applies," he said. "Both the HRA and Mr. Batesole are landlords in town...but Mr. Batesole also has a right to speak his mind."

Carlson directed Jacobson to look into the possibility of a conflict of interest.

In the paperwork that accompanied the HRA's levy request, Hess said the small increase reflects the ongoing trend of growth and development within Alexandria.

"As Alexandria continues to grow, the Alexandria HRA must keep pace with the expanding housing needs of the community," he wrote. Hess added that the local HRA has evolved from an agency rooted strictly in public housing to one offering rehabilitation programs, new home construction, rental inspection services and home buyer financing packages.

A new program will provide emergency low-interest loans to qualified homeowners who need funding to make immediate repairs. Hess said having such a local program in place was a "a real feather in our cap" that could help the HRA get grants in the future. A total of $60,000 was set aside for the program next year.

The HRA is projecting $269,900 in revenues in 2014 from the levy, economic development authority grants and state administrative fees. Expenses will total $260,500 and include debt service ($52,000), programming ($95,000) and administration (including $98,500 in salaries and benefits). This will leave the HRA with reserves of $9,400.

In other action at Monday's meeting, the council:

--Approved a request from Alexandria Fire Marshal Dennis Stark to close Aga Drive from 4:30 to 8 p.m. on September 16 to conduct a disaster drill at the Alexandria Airport involving hazardous materials. The Alexandria Fire Department, Police Department and Emergency Management are organizing the exercise. Also, on the day before, area fire departments will be training with a "jet simulator" that will produce smoke and fire in a simulated fuselage.

--Extended the deadline for those who are interested in serving on the city's charter commission to Thursday, September 5. The city has received 14 applications for the commission so far. You must be a qualified voter of the city of Alexandria in order to be considered for the commission, which reviews the rules that guide all city activities and any changes that are made to the charter. The commission must meet at least once per calendar year. The chief judge of the 7th Judicial District for the state of Minnesota will make the appointments to the Charter Commission. Applications are available at City Hall or at Click on the Boards and Commissions link. The council will evaluate the applications and nominate seven individuals for the chief judge to consider. For more information, contact Marty Schultz, interim city administrator, at (320) 759-3629.

--Agreed to allow the tenants of apartment buildings near two east side parking lots to park overnight on Broadway, Hawthorne Street or on the avenues while the lots are under construction after Labor Day. Right now, parking is prohibited on the 89 stalls between 1 and 6 a.m. The parking lot projects will likely last through late October, displacing about 30 tenant parking spaces in the two blocks from 5th to 7th Avenue, between Broadway and Hawthorne Streets, according to City Planner Mike Weber. "This will be a temporary inconvenience for street sweeping but it seems like a reasonable accommodation for the city's downtown residents," Weber wrote in a letter to the council.

--Approved a request from the Jefferson High School Student Council to hold the JHS homecoming parade on Saturday, September 28 at noon. The parade route will begin at the fairgrounds, move east on 5th Avenue, turn right on Broadway, proceed to 15th Avenue and conclude at the high school. The homecoming committee is working with the police department, the Douglas County Fair Board and the Minnesota Department of Transportation in finalizing the details.

--Agreed to a subordination loan request from Randy and Stacey Hammer, which will allow them to restructure the mortgage on their home on Derek Drive in The Trails.

--Accepted a donation of 200 shares of Wells Fargo stock that will be used to buy equipment for the Alexandria Police Department. The donor wanted to remain anonymous. The mayor, city administrator and finance director were authorized to secure the donation with Focus Financial, Royal Alliance Associates, Inc. of Alexandria.

--Approved the following licenses: excavating -- All-State Well Drilling; heating -- Alexandria Refrigeration; temporary liquor -- Fort Chippewa VFW to sell alcohol for a September 29 event.

Al Edenloff
Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  
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