Council OKs drone for Fire Department

David Phillips

The Spring Valley City Council, meeting in regular session Monday, Sept. 9, made quick work in approving a drone purchase by the Fire Department.

The council also approved a preliminary levy with a 5.16 percent increase, paved the way for expansion of Spring Valley Living after holding a public hearing and proposed a review of its sidewalk policy after getting a request from a homeowner to remove sidewalk.

The drone, which has a cost of $23,393, was proposed by the Fire Department at the last council meeting to use as an aid in firefighting as well as search and rescue. The department has the funds available to cover the cost from charitable donations it has received.

Councilor Chris Danielson had made a motion to approve the purchase at the Aug. 26 meeting, but when Mayor Tony Archer called for a second to the motion, he was met with silence and the motion died without any vote by the council.

Following that meeting, the Fire Department requested the item be put back on the agenda for the council to reconsider.

When the matter came up last week, Archer apologized to the firefighters for “leaving them in the lurch,” adding that he is “still a rookie at this.”

Councilor Luan Ruesink made a motion for the Fire Department to use its own funds to purchase the drone and Councilor Mike Hadland immediately voiced a second to the motion.

“I’m still a little bit on the fence over the drone purchase,” Ruesink said. “But, I do not feel that the council should be able to dictate how the Fire Department uses their funds that they themselves worked to earn, or to get, as well as their gifted money or donation money that they received.”

Hadland suggested to the several firefighters in attendance that the department should put those funds in an account that doesn’t need council approval.

However, city administrator Deb Zimmer noted that in the early 2000s, the department had a separate account that didn’t need council approval, but the state auditor told the city those funds needed to be included in the city books for auditing purposes. The city did make the change, although it created a separate fund to keep that money separate while also allowing it to be audited with the rest of the city funds.

In discussion prior to the vote at the Aug. 26 meeting, Fire Chief Brian Danielson said the drone has dual cameras, which can be “used both on fires looking for hot spots in structures as well as search and rescue so we can locate someone who has wandered off or if someone is missing.”

In Archer’s report at the end of the Sept. 9 meeting, he noted that he was sorry the actions Aug. 26 delayed the process for something that is important to the department. Although not many area fire departments have a drone, “sometimes you have to be the first town to be the leader, or trendsetter,” he said. “It’s very expensive, but what it can do, it can save lives, it can save by checking damages on rooftops and even going out in fields checking something before they have to go I’m glad it passed this evening.”

Preliminary levy set

The council set the 2020 preliminary levy at $1.51 million, which is an increase of 5.16 percent over the 2019 levy.

The debt levy, which is $733,356, an increase of $62,154 or 9.3 percent, is the biggest reason for the increase, Zimmer pointed out.

The general operation levy of $478,986 and the library levy of $117,000 remain the same from 2019. The park levy is increasing $10,000 to $140,000 and the Economic Development Authority levy is increasing $2,000 to $42,000.

Zimmer listed the capital expenditures planned for next year, which include a hotbox trailer for the street department and a squad car replacement for the police department as well as roof repair and wall tuck-pointing for City Hall and the community center. Funds have also been designated for a pickleball fence at Spring Creek Park and new picnic tables at the north pavilion at South Park.

Capital expenditures in the gambling fund, which is separate from any levy, includes pool cleaning equipment as well as equipment for heater and filter cleaning at the pool. Expenditures are also allocated to wrap up industrial park expansion.

Now that the preliminary levy is set, it can’t be raised. However, the council could still lower the levy prior to final certification in December.

Spring Valley Living expansion

Following a public hearing, the council passed a resolution to issue a health care facilities revenue note that would finance expansion of the Spring Valley Living complex. The bond, which would be up to $13 million, would allow construction of two wings at the facility — a 24-bed memory care unit with adult day care and an 1,845-foot garage, and a 12-bed skilled nursing unit.

Mike Bubany, a financial consultant with David Drown Associates, Inc., and former city administrator, was present as a courtesy to the council to explain the bond sale. He called this transaction “conduit financing” because the city wouldn’t actually be making payments.

“Basically the City of Spring Valley puts their stamp of approval on it, but you’re not liable for it in any way,” Bubany said. “So if the care center were to default on payments, it reflects on you in no way, it doesn’t affect your credit rating, you’re not liable to make any payments.”

The reason for the request, he explained is because the city can borrow money tax-exempt, which results in a lower interest rate since the lender doesn’t have to pay taxes. However, because the city is involved, a public hearing is required.

The city will get a fee of $10,000 for allowing this process. Bubany pointed out that Spring Valley Living could have gone to any unit of government with this request, but it makes sense to use the city’s tax exempt status since the project is located in Spring Valley and the city will receive the fee.

There was no public testimony except from a representative of the project who explained some of the details.

Dog ordinance denied

After a second public hearing, the council decided not to change the city’s current dog ordinance, which follows state statute. City attorney Lee Bjorndal had drawn up a dangerous dog ordinance that was very similar to the state statute, but would have been included in the local ordinances with more local control over the outcome of cases.

During the hearing, police policy coordinator Jessy Betts said that if deputies cite someone with a potentially dangerous dog, the appeals process comes to Zimmer and could eventually come before the council, giving the city the “power to reverse the decision” of local law enforcement.

He said the ordinance would basically take the role of a Fillmore County judge and put it back onto the city. Betts, a former councilor, said the council members may get some emotionally-charged people in the room asking the city not to have their dog labeled as such. The council will have to make that choice after reviewing the evidence, he added.

He also read a note from city prosecutor Lee Novotny, who said, “I’m not sure there is a need for this ordinance. The current Minnesota statute criminalizing dangerous dogs has been sufficient in my experience.” He added that it would also create more work for the city.

There was no public testimony and no discussion when it came time to vote to deny the change.

Sidewalk, easement request

The council also denied a request from Bryan Owens, owner of a house at 501 South Section Avenue, who requested that he be able to put dirt over the sidewalk in front of the house. He submitted his request in writing and wasn’t present at the meeting, but the council assumed he wanted to take out the sidewalk in front of the house.

“We always tell people if you remove it (sidewalk), you have to put it back in,” Zimmer said.

Ruesink said she went to take a look and observed there is sidewalk on both sides so “you’re going to have a section...of space on his property that has no sidewalk yet the rest of the street has sidewalk so if someone is coming up the street from University (Avenue), they are going to have to walk onto the street or onto his property to get to the corner and I don’t agree with that. My opinion is he needs to replace the sidewalk if he is going to remove it.”

Hadland expressed concern about the city’s enforcement of sidewalk policy in general.

“The only thing that bugs me about it, is we don’t have any at the industrial park and I see people walking around up there during their lunch hours,” he said. “The industrial park needs sidewalk just as much as residential.”

He noted that if sidewalks aren’t required on some streets, the Bucknell addition was another example he cited, then why is it required for others. “We need to start making it so everybody is the same, not just some,” he said.

The motion denied allowing Owens to place dirt over the sidewalk and also stated that if the sidewalk is removed, it needs to be replaced. The council members also agreed they need to address the overall policy in the future.

Owens’ note also asked about a previous request for a reduction in his assessment of property at 412 West High Street in exchange for an easement. The original certified assessment was $9,258 for 98 feet of frontage land. However, the council decided to reduce the assessment down to 66 feet, or $6,204, in exchange for an easement to a waterway during its May 29 meeting.

Owens came back to the council and asked to reduce the assessment further to $4,000, but that was denied by the council, which then reaffirmed the original offer of $6,204 on June 10.

The consensus of the council was to stick with the amounts it had already approved. The note didn’t specify what terms were requested.

Other business

• Approval was given to a pay estimate of $95,770 from Kuechle Underground, Inc., of Kimball, Minnesota, for the industrial park expansion project. Zimmer said the work is going well with no issues.

• The council approved an audit proposal for 2020 by Smith Schafer Associates, LTD., of Rochester, in the amount of $18,775, an increase of $275 from 2019. Zimmer said the preliminary audit would be done in December and the final audit in December.

• Approval was given to a street repair estimate of $64,249 by Bargen, Inc., of Mountain Lake, Minnesota, for crack repair and patching of various streets in the city. Zimmer said the amount had been budgeted.

• A small cell wireless facility policy was approved. The language was based on a League of Minnesota Cities sample policy. The policy requires plans for all street light fixtures and poles installed in conjunction with small cell wireless facility equipment be reviewed and approved by Spring Valley Utilities prior to installation. It also requires a permit for installation on public right-of-way.

• In the city administrator’s report, Zimmer said that Bruce Fish with JJBK Construction consulted with her on repairs in City Hall to try to find out the cause of a leak from the roof. The firm will be working in Parks and Recreation director John Fenske’s office first, taking down the plaster and doing tuck-pointing around the brick. The estimated cost is up to $5,000.