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  Friday February 27th, 2015    

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City levy, utilities to rise in 2015 (08/27/2014)
By Chris Rogers
The city of Winona would raise its tax levy by 3.9 percent and increase sewer fees by two percent in 2015 under a draft budget recommended by city staff and reviewed by the Winona City Council on Monday night. The total property tax levy for 2015 would be $4.77 million, including the first payment on an eight-year, $2.4 million bond for replacing equipment and vehicles. If approved, the 2015 levy would be the first increase in city taxes since 2012, and would pay for several infrastructure improvements and vehicle replacements. Sewer rates were raised by 6.4 percent in 2012; water rates were increased by 4.5 precent that year.

Summarizing the budget, city manager Judy Bodway said, "We're looking to put back into our coffers or into our activities good usable equipment and to repair our facilities as best we can. We've delayed making purchases in the past, and now it's time. We need to make those purchases."

Two new fire trucks with longer ladders and renovations to the West Fire Station garage to accommodate one of the larger vehicles will cost the city over $1.6 million. The current fire trucks are over 20 years old and to meet national fire standards, the city ought to have longer ladders to protect the city's tallest buildings, according to Winona Fire Chief Curt Bittle. City taxes will continue to be used to pay off the new fire trucks, plus $673,000 in street maintenance vehicles over the next eight years, as part of the planned equipment bond. Bodway told the council that by replacing several old vehicles now, the city will "stop the bleeding" of annual repair sots for the aging vehicles. A $150,000 project to add a pedestrian crossing at Highway 61 and Huff Street would also be included in the bonding debt.

The city plans to spend $1 million on resurfacing city streets next year. The list of streets to be resurfaced has yet to be finalized, but city staff recommended sections of Mark, Howard, King, Sanborn, and Fifth streets. Another $660,000 would go to reconstructing Franklin Street from Howard to Sarnia streets, including the replacement of the rutted railroad crossing.

During the meeting, council member George Boryzskowski asked if the park maintenance department is understaffed, noting the retirement of longtime department head Steve Jasnoch. "We're having a difficult time keeping up," Winona Public Works Director Keith Nelson replied. "We had lost a number of employees, permanent employees and part-time employees, and right now we are anticipating more retirements coming up."

The pending retirements are in addition to staffing reductions made during recent budget cuts. Park maintenance staff has been cut by five full-time equivalent positions since 2009.

In an interview following the meeting, city officials said they would replace all of the future vacancies due to retirements. For the moment, Nelson is considering utilizing workers from the Central Garage crew for park maintenance tasks.

Reserves, utility rates, and annexation

The city would spend $2.3 million in utility reserves under the proposed budget. Utility reserves are funded by sewer and water fees and are supposed to be used for replacing aging parts of the city sewer and water system. In recent years, the city has increased sewer and water rates for all residents and spent part of its reserves on extending city pipes to new annexation areas.

Much of the $2.3 million will be used to replace aging systems that serve areas within the city proper. The Mankato Avenue lift station that pumps most of Winona's waste water out to the waste water treatment plant will be overhauled for $1.3 million, for example. However, the city will also spend $750,000 to install a water tower to service recently annexed homes in Pleasant Valley and the nearby area.

Borzyskowski asked Nelson if the city could handle continued annexation, including annexations by the city of Goodview, which pays Winona to handle its waste water. "Absolutely," Nelson replied. "We're still at a little over 50 percent of capacity for the [waste water treatment] plant, so we still have room for growth, which is great," he continued.

Winona plans to discuss continued annexation of Wilson Township this year, according to Bodway. With agreed-upon limits on further annexation expiring next year, the city will be free to pursue absorbing more of the township in 2015. The city's comprehensive plan calls for extending the city limits and city pipes south all the way to the Interstate 90 interchange.

Nelson explained to the council that the two percent hike in sewer rates is needed in part to make up for increased conservation of sewer use among businesses.

The remaining roughly quarter-of-a-million dollars in 2015 utility reserves spending will fund well maintenance, new vehicles for the waste water treatment plant, an inspection camera for surveying city pipes, and an engine replacement for the waste water treatment plant's methane burner. The electricity-producing methane burner failed to burn methane for the first several years of its operation and failed to achieve the "guaranteed" savings promised by Seattle-based McKinstry engineering. City staff members report that the methane burner has been working for the past year. 


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